Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, your daily look at what's new in biotech. For more coverage throughout the day, check out

Theranos bets its future on a black box

Theranos' minilab: A black-box approach (Theranos)

Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes took to the podium yesterday afternoon at the American Association of Clinical Chemistry to explain the company's science to a packed auditorium of skeptical diagnostics pros. (True fact: Her intro music was "Sympathy for the Devil," from the Rolling Stones.) 

Problem was, she didn't talk much about the science. At least, not the science behind the Edison diagnostic device that's had so many problems. Instead, she introduced a brand-new blood testing platform, the miniLab, which she said has been in in development five years. It's meant to pack the power of a handful of big lab machines into one tabletop device. 

Holmes presented data, as promised, but internal data only; none of it has been validated or peer reviewed. She didn't offer a timetable for getting the device on the market.

Some clinical chemists were mildly impressed. “I’ve never seen anybody put this much stuff in a box,” said Danyel Tacker, associate professor of pathology at West Virginia University. But other experts dismissed the miniLab as "me too" technology, similar to other portable blood testing devices on the market or in the works. Said one: “The data seemed absolutely fine. But it’s not that special."

Read more. 

Meanwhile, on Twitter

Outside the AACC, thousands tuned to watch Holmes via Periscope, and they, by and large, were unconvinced.

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Elsewhere, in blood

Peter Thiel, a very wealthy man who often invests in biotech, is into parabiosis. That’s the process by which the blood of the young is infused into the less-young; there’s lots of animal data showing it can combat the effects of aging.

But despite its success as a Radiohead song, don’t count out on that idea being the next big thing in biotech just yet.

Thiel’s interest, according to Inc, is in a company called Ambrosia, which is testing whether such blood transfusions can improve age-related deterioration. Never mind, for a minute, the fun of imagining a bleak, hypercapitalist technodystopia in which billionaires like Thiel can live forever by buying the blood of the poor on an open market. Is this a real business?

Ambrosia’s founder admits that there’s no clear path to market for his method, which relies on donor blood. What would make more sense would be crafting a drug to replicate the effects of transfusion. But that has so far been hampered by a pretty serious stumbling block: No one knows why transfusions work.

In 2014, researchers singled out a protein, GDF11, that was particularly abundant in young blood versus old, making it seem like an ideal drug target. But last year, a separate team of scientists tested whether bombarding mice with GDF11 would reverse aging — only to find that it did the opposite

Now other companies are working on other proteins and plasmas in hopes of hitting on what makes transfusions effective. But until there’s substantive clinical data, immortality remains unattainable. Even for billionaires.

GSK's already talking about pricing of electroceuticals

GlaxoSmithKline's Moncef Slaoui is soon to retire, but not before launching a joint venture with Verily that he promises is "not science fiction." (SUSAN WALSH/AP)

GlaxoSmithKline just signed a high-dollar agreement with Google’s life sciences spinoff, and even though the pair’s work is years from commercial use, executives are already talking about how to price it.

In an interview with STAT’s Ed Silverman, GSK’s Moncef Slaoui dished on the company’s plans to develop so-called electroceuticals — implants that treat disease through nerve stimulation. “I think the appropriate and responsible thing to do is price interventions like this so the cost is spread over time — a pay-for-performance approach,” Slaoui said.

This might seem a bit hasty for a project that is yet to be tested in humans, but it’s also a sign the drug industry understands that gone are the days of winning FDA approval and expecting billions in sales to just roll in.

Massachusetts remains noncompetitive

The years-long effort to ban (or at least weaken) noncompete agreements in Massachusetts has failed yet again, a blow to venture capitalists and startup types who say they're losing ground in a talent war with California. But the biotech contingent isn't giving up; expect more pressure on the legislature next year.

More reads

  • What do pharmacy benefits managers do, exactly? (STAT)
  • Pfizer is amping up its work in gene therapy, buying a North Carolina startup focused on muscular and nervous disorders. (Press release)
  • Emergent Biosolutions spun out its immunology and oncology business into the publicly traded Aptevo Therapeutics. (The Seattle Times)
  • Biotech entrepreneur Jeff Karp, a disciple of famed professor Robert Langer, used one of his tissue glues to heal a dog. (The Boston Globe)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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