Day One of JPM Brings Excitement and Promise for a New Year in Biotech and Pharma

people in auditorium listening to a speaker at a conference

Biotech and pharma companies came roaring out of the gate on the first day of the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference with big deals, expansions and promises of growth and pipeline sustainability.

First out of the gate was Eli Lilly’s $8 billion acquisition of Loxo Oncology. The deal deepened Eli Lilly’s commitment to its oncology pipeline with the recently-approved Vitrakvi (larotrectinib), an oral TRK inhibitor. The deal also provided Lilly with several other pipeline candidates, such as LOXO-292, an oral RET inhibitor being evaluated across multiple cancer types and LOXO-305, an oral BTK inhibitor currently in Phase I/II.

The acquisition of Loxo followed close on the heels of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $74 billion pre-JPM acquisition of Celgene that also strengthened that company’s oncology programs, along with inflammatory and immunologic diseases, and cardiovascular disease.

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Another first-day event of significant note was Gilead Sciences$785 million deal for the rights to molecules for the treatment of advanced fibrosis related to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Gilead struck the deal with South Korea-based Yuhan Corporation. NASH is a core area for Gilead. The company closed out 2018 with a collaborative deal with Scholar Rock that includes highly specific inhibitors of transforming growth factor beta activation for fibrotic diseases, including NASH.

Novartis also spent much of the first day of the conference outlining its transformation to a company that will be heavily invested in cell and gene therapies. During its presentation, Novartis noted that it is interested in focusing on treatments that have the potential to cure patients of various diseases in what many researchers hope could be a “one-and-done” treatment, as opposed to treating a disease for an extended period of time. The company pointed to several M&A moves it made over 2018 that have set the stage for its future. The company anticipates the first fruits of those M&A deals to manifest later this year with the approval of a gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy that could have a price tag of between $4 and $5 million for a one-time treatment.

Not to be outdone, longtime development partners Sanofi and Regeneron restructured a nearly-four-year-old agreement that was expected to expire in 2020. The new deal structure adds two clinical-stage bispecific antibodies to the collaboration. As BioSpace noted in its coverage yesterday, the deal allows Regeneron to hold all rights to its other immuno-oncology I/O discovery and development programs. It gives Sanofi more flexibility in advancing its early-stage I/O pipeline by itself. As part of the deal, Sanofi forked over $462 million, which is the balance due under the original 2015 deal. That payment covers up to $120 million in development costs for the two new antibodies, as well as a termination fee for the other programs under the original deal. 

While not a deal, SAGE Therapeutics boasted that its Phase III postpartum depression treatment candidate SAGE-217 hit the mark in its late-stage clinical trial. That news caused shares of the company to skyrocket from $97.51 to $146.34 per share. The company noted that patients treated with SAGE-217 had a statistically significant improvement of 17.8 points in the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, compared to 13.6 for placebo. Remission was achieved in 45 percent of patients treated with SAGE-217 for two weeks as measured by the HAMD-17 compared with 23 percent of patients receiving placebo, the company announced. That means that for the women who took the treatment, nearly half of them on that arm saw their symptoms disappear.

Other bits of news coming out of the conference included Roivant Sciences announcing it has launched a new Vant focused on tech-enabled pharma commercialization. The new Vant, Alyvant, launched with an announced partnership for the co-promotion of three approved branded medicines.

Also, AstraZeneca announced that it has hired José Baselga, the former Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Chief Medical Officer who resigned from the cancer center in September, as the new head of oncology research and discovery. Baselga’s addition was part of the company’s move to strengthen its own role in the oncology field.

FUJIFILM also announced that it intends to invest about $90 million to expand its Bio Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO) Business. The investment includes the expansion of existing production facilities in North Carolina that will support its customer portfolio. Additional details of the investment plan are expected to be announced later this quarter.  

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