Bio Roundup: Trump News, Anthem’s Stand, Diversity by 2056 & More

Xconomy National — 

It was a wild week in biotech and on Capitol Hill. A new study showed it may take another 40 years to achieve gender parity in public biotech boardrooms. Tensions continued to mount between drugmakers and payers over the rising costs of rare disease drugs. A flurry of deals took place, headlined by Johnson & Johnson’s $30 billion gamble on Swiss firm Actelion. And a group of biotechs led by Jounce Therapeutics were the first to test the IPO market in 2017.

Meanwhile in Washington, President Donald Trump spent much of his first week signing executive orders on a variety of issues and battling the media, yet the future of many important pieces of healthcare policy and regulation—like who will lead the FDA—remain unclear.

There’s much to go through, so let’s get right to it.


—President Trump’s nominee to run the Health and Human Services department, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), sat through a second Senate hearing in as many weeks. (Here’s our report from last week.) This week, Price had to answer questions about Trump’s executive order to lift or weaken elements of the Affordable Care Act. Price also continued to deflect accusations of conflicts of interest surrounding his investments.

—The Trump news was unrelenting this week, including word that federal agencies that do scientific research have been muzzled, and all federal agencies are under a hiring freeze. Here’s an overview of what a hiring freeze might mean for the FDA, which already has a staff shortage to review new and generic drugs. And here’s a Bloomberg story about the potential effect of a freeze on the recently-enacted 21st Century Cures Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

—One keystone of the Cures Act was a $1 billion grant to the states to fight the opioid epidemic. STAT reported on the latest municipality—Everett, WA—to sue Purdue Pharma for practices that led to the pain killer OxyContin becoming a central scourge in the epidemic. (An important Los Angeles Times investigative series on Purdue and OxyContin is here.)


—In disclosing its coverage policy for the first-ever approved spinal muscular atrophy drug, Biogen’s (NASDAQ: BIIB) nusinersen (Spinraza), Indianapolis insurer Anthem (NASDAQ: ANTM) said the drug is only “medically necessary” for a group of patients with a more severe form of the disease, which contradicts with the FDA’s label. The decision validates patient fears that the drug’s high price tag might make it hard for some with the disease to obtain treatment.

—British recruitment firm Liftstream released its latest report on biotech gender diversity. Biotech companies that went public during the recent boom have women in 11 percent of board seats; the numbers are lower for their chief executives. While there has been a bit of progress, biotech boards would reach gender parity in 40 years at the current rate, the study said—and much of the blame lies with the male-dominated venture world.


—In an unusual deal, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) agreed to buy Actelion for $30 billion while getting a minority stake in a separate, spinout company the Swiss firm is forming around its R&D operations.

—Just four months after raised a Series A round, Cambridge autoimmune drug developer Delinia sold itself to Celgene for $300 million (the deal includes $475 million in potential milestone payments). CEO Saurabh Saha told Xconomy that Celgene was one of several firms to bid on the startup.


—San Diego-based AnaptysBio was the first U.S. biotech company to go public in 2017, raising $75 million in its IPO.

—AnaptysBio was quickly followed by Cambridge-based Jounce Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JNCE), which bested its projections and hauled in $102 million in its offering—a positive sign for this year’s biotech IPO class.


—Verily Life Sciences, a unit of Google’s parent Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG), reeled in an $800 million investment from Singapore-based Temasek Holdings, with an eye toward moving Verily’s still-experimental products, such as a “smart” contact lens, into Asian markets. Verily also has a role in building the U.S. Precision Medicine Initiative database, as Xconomy reported last summer.

—Cambridge-based Cue Biopharma emerged from stealth with $16 million in funding to develop immunotherapy drugs for cancer and autoimmune disorders.


—Novartis (NYSE: NVS) included its CAR-T cell cancer therapy CTL-019 in a baker’s dozen of potential “blockbuster” medicines that could hit the $1 billion annual sales mark. Novartis hopes to have FDA approval of CTL-019 to treat kids with acute lymphoblastic leukemia this year. It also plans to ask for approval of the T cell therapy in lymphoma if an ongoing trial succeeds. Analysts immediately issued positive forecasts, which as often as not should be dismissed as nothing more than a dart-throwing exercise.

Science Translational Medicine published the latest data from a small, early trial of an experimental off-the-shelf cell therapy from France and New York-based firm Cellectis (NASDAQ: CLLS). Here’s more from MIT Tech Review.

—And in case you missed it: Axios got a hold of a Theranos pitch deck from 2006.

Alex Lash and Frank Vinluan contributed to this report

Photo of Women’s March on Washington by flickr user Mobilus in Mobili via a Creative Commons license.