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Friday, March 2, 2018

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, where we keep you on top of the latest in biotech. For more in-depth coverage of biopharma, subscribe to STAT Plus. On Twitter: @damiangarde@megkesh, and @statnews.

A young blood study tries to find some takers

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(MIKE REDDY/STAT)

Fascination with young blood has spread from Silicon Valley tech circles to West Palm Beach high society.

STAT's Rebecca Robbins flew down to Florida last month to get an inside look into a glitzy symposium where a crowd of mostly Baby Boomers was pitched on enrolling in a new clinical trial testing transfusions of plasma from donors between the ages of 18 and 35. There won't be any blinding or a placebo group, and participants will have to pay big to sign up. 

Experts are ... dubious. “It just reeks of snake oil,” said Michael Conboy, a cell and molecular biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who’s co-authored studies sewing old and young mice together and transfusing blood between them.

Read more.

People are mad about drug ads again

Specifically, people who can write laws. Sen. Claire McCaskill introduced a bill that would bar drug companies from deducting the cost of drug ads. It's called the End Taxpayer Subsidies for Drug Ads Act.

The industry has long bristled at this notion and labeled it unfair. Other businesses write off their advertising costs; why single out the ones that make drugs? And the idea that such a rule change is an effort to reduce drug prices is a little round-about: If you're a lawmaker, you could just make a law about drug prices and leave TV commercials out of it.

Furthermore, the government isn't exactly enforcing the drug-ad laws already on the books. A recent study looked at 97 direct-to-consumer ads for pharmaceuticals and found that few actually complied with FDA regulations, while 13 percent promoted off-label uses for the drug in question.

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Regeneron’s hashtag isn’t working

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(MIKE REDDY/STAT)

During an earnings call last month, Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer bemoaned the difficulty patients have in getting prescriptions approved for Dupixent, the company’s new eczema drug. “Perhaps we should start a hashtag,” Schleifer said, “#deniedRx.”

Exactly five tweets have used that hashtag in the month since, and the problem persists. Patient access to Dupixent is still being “tightly controlled and restricted” by payers, according to a doctor survey from Leerink, suggesting “payers are still requiring onerous utilization requirements for two-thirds of patients despite the comparatively lower price” of the drug to other biologics.

And that’s the thing: When Regeneron priced Dupixent at $37,000 a year back in 2016, everyone — even Express Scripts! — seemed to think that was pretty fair. Now, with a year of real-life experience to consider, those $5 billion peak sales estimates are looking a little shaky.

What’s so bad about buybacks?

When big drug companies got wind of the tax breaks they’d get in 2018, they ran the numbers and decided how to spend the cash: on themselves, in the form of share buybacks.

This is just a thing businesses do, in every industry; since the tax cuts became law, American firms have announced $178 billion in buybacks. And most of it has taken place with little in the way of public consternation.

Except in the drug business, where buying your own shares is often seen as an implication that securities cannibalism provides a better return than investing in that science you’re always going on about. And it seems to fly in the face of the argument that drug prices must be high to incentivize costly research: You must be doing pretty well with the profits you’ve got if you can pour money into buybacks and keep your science budget flat.

And, as Derek Lowe points out in Science Translational Medicine, the industry isn’t doing itself any favors, perception-wise. “Pfizer, Merck, AbbVie, and Amgen have each announced $10 billion buyback plans, which is a larger sum for each of them than than any of their total R&D budgets,” he notes.

More reads

  • Omeros cataract surgery drug sales vanished and now a loan default is a real risk (STAT Plus)
  • Helix, competing with Ancestry and 23andMe, raises $200 million for marketing war. (Forbes)
  • Why Oppenheimer Global fund is focusing on biotech as rates rise. (Reuters)
  • Regeneron's Eylea inflammation risk tied to drug syringes. (Bloomberg)

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Thanks for reading! Until next week,

Damian

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