Drug Development

Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down: The new buzz in R&D, blockbuster work on a budget and why what’s dead may never die

Endpoints assesses the big biopharma R&D stories of the week, with a little added commentary on what they mean for the industry.

thumb Bioelectronics gets a star turn

Let’s get it out front. I have a weakness for big thinking about new R&D fields. So when I got wind of the tie-up between GlaxoSmithKline and Verily (Lord Google’s life science arm), I got up at 3 am and wrote the story. The idea that nanotech based devices can be used to orchestrate a series of electric pulses to treat a disease can only thrill a real R&D enthusiast. And at this stage, everything has great potential. We’re a couple of years out from proof of concept, so this is far from a commercial story. (Which, let’s face it, is what GSK really needs now.) Science lovers will follow it as closely as they can. Count me in.

thumb down Biogen is doing a deal? Really?

There’s been no doubt at all, for more than a year now, that Biogen needs to get serious and do some big deals. But instead of pacts that can grab Wall Street’s attention with some late-stage pizzazz, Biogen has been dealing with a management changeup. Doug Williams and Steve Holtzman left last year, both finding new biotechs to run, and Biogen couldn’t get its act together in time to save George Scangos’ perch at the top. The early-stage work it committed to in gene therapy is fascinating, but it lacks the kind of near term catalysts that Biogen hungers for. Alzheimer’s is a huge, ultra-risky opportunity. Management told us again this week that great deals are coming. We’re still waiting. And that’s not a good thing.

thumb Regeneron’s stellar Q2 update

This is how you set up a late-stage pipeline, on a budget. At $1.45 billion, Regeneron’s 2016 research budget won’t make the top 20. But its late-stage pipeline has several potential blockbusters in it. I just saw a new analyst take on the company, noting that the approval of drugs like dupilumab is baked in now. That’s an indication that Regeneron not only knows a solid medical advance, it plans and executes on clinical trials like few companies can. Sanofi also gets credit for participating in its work, where it has seen far more success than its in-house effort has produced. Failures are so frequent in biopharma R&D, it’s great to applaud Regeneron. I’m looking forward to this company’s third act in the clinic.

thumb down thumb Shire follows Takeda in reorganizing R&D.

Last week, Takeda made it clear that it is cutting staffers in places like Cambridge, UK so it can concentrate its research forces in the Cambridge/Boston and Japan. This week Shire outlined the first cut in its three-year plan: to reduce R&D costs $210 million after acquiring Baxalta. Baxalta, of course, was just getting started with its solo act when Shire stepped in. These are all real-world results when you are A) growing through acquisitions and B) changing the culture. They are painful and often necessary alterations in the landscape. But you can’t help but feel for the people whose jobs are lying in the way of perpetual change. R&D has been a volcanic field for the past decade. Job security is a thing of the past. This has likely helped productivity, at the cost of playing hell with people’s lives.

thumb down Resveratrol: Show me the data.

Some research stories won’t die. But truthfully, why bring back resveratrol from the dead at this point? The Wall Street Journal made the unfortunate decision to do that, based on some mighty thin pickings from a few ongoing research projects in odd pockets of the world. You’ll recall GSK’s enthusiasms mentioned at the top? They got a look at resveratrol’s animal data at Sirtris, which turned out to be more than a little controversial, and paid $720 million for it. Sirtris never got very far and GSK wound it up and shipped the remaining projects south to Philly. One day, somebody may actually land real evidence that they found a way to turn this miracle drug into a reality. Until then, let’s leave it as a side show.

thumb Decibel hears the call of a new biotech neighborhood.

Biotech, of course, can be pursued just about anywhere on the planet, but gravitates to the most expensive places in the world. One of those places is Kendall Square in Cambridge, where Big Pharma has been moving in and gentrifying the neighborhood with big bucks for new research centers. They have an understandable determination to learn new things from the movers and shakers of the science world. But as Decibel’s Steve Holtzman made clear, they’re pricing startups like his out of the market. So he’s jumping the Charles and making his new home in Fenway. Boston/Cambridge will long remain one of the most vital research hubs in the world. But only if you think outside the boundaries, and that includes town lines.

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John Carroll, Editor and Co-Founder

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