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Readout @ JPM

A programming note: Our special J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference editions of the Readout will hit your inbox each afternoon for the duration of the meeting. The newsletter will return to its early-morning schedule starting Friday.

Greetings from virtual #JPM21

This is the first of STAT’s daily email check-ins from biopharma’s January kickoff bash. San Francisco, we miss you. Follow STAT reporters @adamfeuerstein, @damiangarde, @matthewherper, @sheridan_kate, and @pharmalot.

M&As are MIA

Deal enthusiasts ended Monday disappointed. There were no big acquisitions announced on the first day of the conference. Sanofi said it is buying Kymab, a small, privately held cancer startup, for $1.1 billion in upfront cash. Meh.

There’s always tomorrow.

It’s 2021 and we’re debating the amyloid hypothesis

While the first day of JPM brought little in the way of high-dollar merger news, it did invite the world to once more consider whether targeting a toxic brain plaque called amyloid can indeed improve the lives of patients with Alzheimer's disease.

The so-called amyloid hypothesis, on perhaps the last of its innumerable legs after a string of high-profile failures, got a boost from Eli Lilly with a treatment called donanemab. In a small placebo-controlled study, the amyloid-targeting drug slowed cognitive decline by 32%, which Lilly said was a statistically significant finding. The company also argued that it had achieved unprecedented clearance of plaques from patients' brains.

The data are preliminary, and, if the history of reproducibility in Alzheimer's studies is any indication, the odds are not exactly in donanemab's favor.

But Lilly's update was enough to reanimate the amyloid conversation one more time.

Biogen, erstwhile star of the amyloid debate, rose about 8% on Monday, adding roughly $4 billion to its market value. To Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos, Lilly's data add "momentum and belief" to the amyloid hypothesis.

Whether that momentum changes any beliefs at the FDA remains to be seen. Biogen's amyloid-directed treatment, aducanumab, is up for approval by March 7. In November, a panel of expert FDA advisers expressed grave doubts about the evidence supporting aducanumab, making the drug's prospects of approval look dire. But Biogen didn't sound discouraged. Al Sandrock, the company's head of research, pointed out that the panel's recommendation is not binding, adding that there's "plenty of precedent for FDA to not go along with the vote of the committee."

Bristol Myers Squibb finds a way to spend terminated CVR cash

When Bristol Myers Squibb failed to secure U.S. approval in December for its liso-cel CAR-T treatment for blood cancer, the pharma giant's obligation to pay $6 billion in cash to former Celgene shareholders in the form of a contingent value right also went poof!

Needless to say, holders of the Celgene CVR were not happy, particularly because some accuse BMS of purposefully slow-footing the approval process to avoid the payout. BMS has defended its actions, blaming Covid and an overworked FDA for the liso-cel delay and the CVR termination.

Still, on Monday, Giovanni Caforio, the company's CEO, seemed to twist the knife in that fresh CVR wound.

"In light of the fact that the CVR payout will no longer happen as originally planned, we announced an increase in our share repurchase authorization. We plan to execute an additional $2 billion share repurchase this year," said Caforio during his presentation.

Ouch.

A billionaire's talking cube

One eye-catching piece of news this JPM week came from Tempus, the health technology company run by billionaire Eric Lefkofsky, who previously cofounded online discount firm Groupon. The company is valued by investors at $8.1 billion, according to Pitchbook.

Tempus unveiled a small, glowing cube that cancer doctors can ask questions about their patients, including about the genetic profiles of their tumors. Think about it as Alexa for oncologists. But don't expect to see it terribly soon. Right now the device, called Tempus One, is being beta tested with 50 doctors. As with many other things in health data, the product won't be for sale by itself. Tempus hopes it will help doctors work better with its existing tools and use its products. The real value for the company? The data it is generating, which can be sold to other firms, such as pharmaceutical companies.

That was alright

First impressions of the virtual JPM meeting: With the confab operating on East Coast time, it was nice waking up at a reasonable hour, meaning 5 a.m instead of 3 a.m. to catch the first push of news announcements. Home-brewed coffee better than hotel coffee.

Watching company presentations from the comfort of a home office, in a hoodie and sweatpants? Also nice. (Apparently Matt chose to wear a tweed blazer and dress shirt today, but he's just weird that way.)

Credit to the J.P. Morgan IT department because the meeting platform was easy to use, and did not crash.

The downside: A virtual format can never replace the feeling of being in the room with management and investors. Travel is a hassle and cramming into the Westin St. Francis hotel sucks, but it's still the best way to experience JPM. There's a visceral thrill one gets by reading the sentiment in the room — joy, confidence, frustration, anger and bewilderment — that just doesn't come across when staring at a laptop screen.

Also, no parties.

More reads

  • Bluebird Bio intends to split into two companies, but for now, its troubles are also divided. (STAT Plus)
  • Company dedicated to cutting drug prices raises lots of money, releases few details. (STAT Plus)
  • BioMarin's stock tumbles 6% after sharing data about experimental hemophilia A drug. (MarketWatch)
  • Vertex Pharma taking more aggressive M&A stance, flush with cash from cystic fibrosis drugs. (STAT Plus)

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow.

Monday, January 11, 2021

STAT

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