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Thursday, March 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.

Trump proposes huge cuts to biomedical research

Remember the days when biomedical research was a bipartisan priority? No more.

President Trump's budget blueprint, out early this morning, proposes an enormous cut of nearly $6 billion to the National Institutes of Health. That's about a fifth of its budget. Those cuts would, of course, ripple out far beyond Bethesda, Md., potentially affecting tens of thousands of researchers at universities around the country.

The president is also calling for big research cuts within the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

There was a time when scientists hoped that Newt Gingrich's presence in Trump's orbit augured well for the NIH. It was just two years ago, after all, that Gingrich argued for doubling the NIH's funding. “It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle,” Gingrich wrote.

That was then. This is now.

Trump's budget, of course, is just an opening bid; details will have to be negotiated with Congress, and even his allies on the Hill are likely to balk at some of the cuts. But the document out today lays down a marker for the president's priorities. And funding scientific research is not one of them.

Read more.

Win Mark Zuckerberg’s money

The NIH may be cutting back, but there's money to be had elsewhere: The Facebook founder, in his oft-cited mission to spend $3 billion eradicating disease as we know it, is looking to build a sort of social network of cells. And he needs help.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Cell Atlas is on the hunt for year-long pilot projects to advance the idea; it’s accepting proposals through April 17. The goal is to rally around “standards, protocols, and best practices for the creation of a freely and openly available reference database of healthy human cells and tissues.”

You can apply here.

How many human-friendly pig organs can you get for $38 million?

That is, in a sense, what eGenesis is looking to find out. 

The company, co-founded by Harvard geneticist George Church, is using CRISPR to edit pig cells in hopes of growing organs that can be safely transplanted into people. And it just raised $38 million from a syndicate that includes Arch Venture Partners and the newly founded Biomatics Capital.

The plan is to use CRISPR to tackle the two major hurdles that have stood in the way of pig-to-person transplants. First, they need to edit out porcine endogenous retroviruses, unfortunately abbreviated as “PERVs,” to ensure they don’t spread to transplant recipients. Then they have to modify the porcine genome to prevent the human immune system from rejected its new pig-grown parts.

The goal is to generate preclinical proof-of-concept data in 2019, said eGenesis CSO Luhan Yang, who co-authored some of the company’s foundational CRISPR papers before leaping from academia to industry. At that point, the company will sit down with the FDA to figure out what a human study of androporcine transplantation should look like. That will likely be an interesting conversation.

“The agency is very eager to work with us,” Yang said. “It’s not easy on our part. It’s not easy on their part. But we’re motivated to work together, to do this right and effectively.”

Post-doc malaise

Time’s ripe for industry to swoop in and save our poor, disillusioned postdocs: A recent paper finds that biomedical scientists, at least those based in the UK, “are deeply concerned about their long-term future in research.” Many plan on leaving research because of a general lack of job opportunities — and consider pursuing academia “a bad bet to make in the first place.” 

More than 40 percent of these people work more than 60 hours per week, by the way.

Conclusion: The talent pool’s swarming, so get hiring, biopharma, while the hiring is good.

More reads

  • Pharma's pricing pressure only makes big companies more likely to buy small ones, says investor Brad Loncar. (CNBC)
  • Senator Ed Markey has come out against Dr. Scott Gottlieb's nomination to lead the FDA, saying the agency needs a commissioner who will "who will stand up to Big Pharma." (STAT Plus)
  • Lawmakers ask FDA to explain why a controversial Marathon drug was approved. (STAT Plus)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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