Bio Roundup: Trump Backlash, Verdine Plans, Sarepta Sale & More

Xconomy National — 

A short week makes for a shorter roundup. As we’ve come to expect, however, there was no dearth of health and life-sciences news from Washington, D.C. A bipartisan group of Congress members who oversee health policy countered President Donald Trump’s encouragement of vaccine skeptics; the real test will be the upcoming budget’s funding of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine programs.

Top pharma executives were among 16 CEOs who lobbied Congress for tax reform. And former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who battled constantly with the Obama administration as well as more conservative members of his own party, said that the GOP is going to fix the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but it will fall short of “repeal and replace.”

Let’s get beyond the Beltway and on to the roundup.


—Looking across the pond at the U.S., the British Medical Journal published an editorial that criticized Trump administration policies and attitudes toward science, which “seem lacking in careful consideration of the consequences for biomedical research, healthcare, and ultimately the health of people in the US and the rest of the world.”

—Rumors continued about a potential takeover bid for Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), fueled by a board shakeup and activist investor Carl Icahn’s purchase of a stake in the big pharma, which has a heavy tilt toward cancer drugs. BMS has fallen behind rival Merck (NYSE: MRK) in cancer’s highest-profile field, checkpoint immunotherapy, especially in the treatment of lung cancer, and its share price is more than 25 percent off its multi-year peak of last summer.

—Serial biotech entrepreneur Greg Verdine told Xconomy he will retire in two or three years from Harvard University, where he is a tenured chemical biologist, and focus on two currently stealthy startups he co-founded, FogPharma and LifeMine Therapeutics. Verdine says he wants to be CEO of FogPharma for the long haul and keep a “ferocious independence” to pursue his vision.

—An audit by the University of Texas System slammed MD Anderson Cancer Center for its cancer treatment analysis system that uses IBM’s “Watson” supercomputing power. The auditors criticized the center’s contracts and payments and noted that the artificial-intelligence system is still not in use nearly five years after the first IBM contract.


—Cambridge, MA-based Sarepta Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SRPT) sold a priority review voucher, which can speed the FDA review of an experimental drug, to Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) for $125 million, giving Gilead a potential route to boost its flagging fortunes. Similar vouchers commanded price tags as high as $350 million two years ago.

—With a $74 million Series B round, Cranbury, NJ-based PMV Pharmaceuticals became the latest startup to haul in cash to try to develop cancer drugs that interact with one of the most important yet difficult targets in cancer biology, the tumor suppressor protein p53.

—Seventh Sense Biosystems of Medford, MA, won FDA clearance to market its needle-free blood draw device TAP to healthcare facilities that need to monitor the blood sugar levels of diabetics.


—Merck said in a regulatory filing that it has significantly devalued the experimental hepatitis C drug MRK-3682, acquired in its $3.85 billion buyout of Idenix Pharmaceuticals in 2014. Merck cited “recent changes to the product profile, as well as changes to its expectations for pricing and the market opportunity” for valuing the drug, now, at $240 million and taking a $2.9 billion pre-tax impairment charge. Here’s more from Endpoints.

—Two more cancer vaccines have come up short. Agenus (NASDAQ: AGEN) disclosed that a Phase 2 study of its brain cancer vaccine Prophage was halted early for futility. On the same day, a Phase 3 study of Argos Therapeutics’s (NASDAQ: ARGS) kidney cancer vaccine, rocapuldencel-T, was shuttered early for the same reason.

—San Diego-based Cidara Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CDTX) stopped work on a topical treatment for vaginal yeast infections after a Phase 2 study showed the drug failed to work better than oral antifungals currently used as the standard of care.

—Berkeley Heights, NJ-based Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CYCC) reported that its experimental cancer drug, sapacitabine, failed a Phase 3 trial in acute myeloid leukemia, sending shares down 31 percent.


—The March cover story of Forbes looks at J. Craig Venter’s push to screen healthy people and change healthcare practice through his company Human Longevity (HLI). As Xconomy reported in December, Venter said that he found out about his own prostate cancer through tests at the HLI-affiliated clinic Health Nucleus.

Harvard Business Review wrote about MIT drug delivery and tissue engineering specialist Bob Langer, who is also a prolific startup creator.

Photo by Joe Flintham via a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Ben Fidler and Frank Vinluan contributed to this report