Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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.

OK, so maybe pharma’s not galvanized against the president

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky — the other pharma human on President Trump’s suddenly all-important advisory council — is not quitting the panel, which is to say not following the actions of his counterpart at Merck.

“In the end, I have concluded that Johnson & Johnson has a responsibility to remain engaged, not as a way to support any specific political agenda, but as a way to represent the values of Our Credo as crucial public policy is discussed and developed,” Gorsky said of his decision to remain on a panel that has not met since April and has not announced plans for any future meetings.

Meanwhile, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier finds himself in a particularly uncommon position for pharma CEO: as the subject of public adoration. People just keep saying nice things about the guy, praising his legal career, his path to the top, and, most of all, his decision to stop going to the White House.

“I hope that the courage of one person who has taken an unequivocal stance against hatred and bigotry will inspire others to do the same thing at a moment when our tolerance for injustice and the limits of our morality are being sorely tested,” wrote Dr. Tony Coles, former CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals and current chief of Yumanity Therapeutics.

Meet biopharma's favorite lobbyists

Political influence is expensive. Over the last 20 years, the drug industry has spent $3.7 billion on federal lobbying, roughly $1 billion more than any other industry. 

Since the beginning of last year, biopharma put more than $144 million into the pockets of lobbying firms to do its bidding in Washington. Who took home the most drug money? STAT’s Charles Piller has the data.

Read more.

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Old is gold — particularly with NIH grants 

Younger scientists are increasingly reticent to enter academia, thanks in large part to the cutthroat competition for NIH funding. 

RO1 grants are among the most coveted of NIH grants, helping ensure several years of biomedical research funding. But most scientists will never be able to secure an RO1 grant until middle age, as we see in the graphic below:

The majority of funding goes to older principal investigators, instead of younger bioscientists — a trend that, worryingly, could severely hamper future innovation in the sector.

A diabetic canary in the pharmaceutical drug mine

Year over year we see incremental improvements upon existing drugs — particularly insulin — which allow pharmaceutical companies to exponentially up their price tags. Yet doctors, patients, and insurers are no longer interested in buying these schmancy me-too drugs, as the Wall Street Journal reports. 

Take Novo Nordisk’s latest version of insulin, called Tresiba: The company wanted to price that up to 70 percent higher than the previous incarnation. That’s now unlikely. 

“The incremental improvements don’t seem to justify the premium prices,” the chief medical officer of Express Scripts, one of the biggest PBMs, told the Journal. 

This trend could have some interesting implications for the broader pharmaceutical industry. Will the same phenomenon play out with cancer drugs? Companies are churning out mechanistically similar drugs, so clinical trials now must compete for a small pool of cancer patients. Yet the prices continue to rise. But for how long?

Major innovation may still warrant a payoff, but looks like consumers are wising up to all this piggybacking.

More reads

  • The FDA made a "grand bargain" on fast drug approvals, but pharma isn’t holding up its end. (STAT Plus)
  • Despite years of disruptive forecasts, biosimilars just aren't selling. (Bloomberg)
  • Hemophilia groups file civil rights complaint against Wellmark for Obamacare discrimination. (Washington Examiner)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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