GSK déjà vu: Time for a top-down switch as new CEO tries to con­quer old R&D demons

Close to a decade ago, GSK CEO An­drew Wit­ty and R&D chief Mon­cef Slaoui de­cid­ed they need­ed to do some­thing new and dif­fer­ent to fire up a lack­lus­ter R&D group, look­ing to shock a sys­tem where re­searchers were far too fo­cused on hang­ing on to un­promis­ing drugs.

Now, new CEO Em­ma Walm­s­ley says she has in­her­it­ed the ex­act same prob­lem they vowed to fix.

Walm­s­ley notes the com­pa­ny needs new block­buster drugs that can bring in more than a bil­lion dol­lars each if she ex­pects to liv­en things up on the bot­tom line. An­a­lysts (hel­lo, GSK) have been say­ing the same thing for years, shak­ing their heads over the drug ap­provals that did come through with­out much chance of chang­ing the game in the dis­eases they ad­dressed.

The CEO im­me­di­ate­ly point­ed to the same source of the prob­lem as her pre­de­ces­sors: it’s the R&D group’s fault, where in­ves­ti­ga­tors are too en­trenched around the wrong as­sets.

“If you’ve been work­ing on an as­set for decades in R&D it’s very hard to de­cide it isn’t im­por­tant enough to take for­ward . . . so it’s not sur­pris­ing that peo­ple’s hu­man mo­ti­va­tion is to keep pro­gress­ing stuff,” the CEO said in an in­ter­view with the Fi­nan­cial Times.

Walm­s­ley’s de­ci­sion to shake things up comes with new au­thor­i­ty for her phar­ma chiefs — Jack Bai­ley and Luke Miels — to start call­ing the shots on what the pri­or­i­ties should be.  Wit­ty and Slaoui came up with DPUs, or Dis­cov­ery Per­for­mance Units, say­ing that each team had to jus­ti­fy their ex­is­tence at the end of the first three years, or else.

‘Or else’ turned out to be some new as­sign­ments, for a few re­searchers, though there was al­so plen­ty of dis­rup­tion with a ma­jor swap with No­var­tis or the US lay­offs that fol­lowed the R&D group’s poor per­for­mance.

Now, rather than look­ing for a bot­tom-up ap­proach to in­no­va­tion, GSK will go with a top-down stan­dard as Walm­s­ley kicks loose 30 pro­grams and adds new can­cer and im­muno-in­flam­ma­to­ry drugs as she shifts fo­cus to the key US mar­ket.

GSK al­so re­cent­ly de­cid­ed to shut­ter a neu­ro­sciences R&D group in Shang­hai, an­oth­er lega­cy of the Wit­ty/Slaoui regime. What comes next?

The big ques­tion for Walm­se­ly will be whether she can bring new life to a tor­pid and un­pro­duc­tive re­search arm that has been ham­mered by re­peat­ed cut­backs. For the rank and file, it’s time to face an old re­al­i­ty — again.

Inside FDA HQ (File photo)

The FDA just ap­proved the third Duchenne MD drug. And reg­u­la­tors still don’t know if any of them work

Last year Sarepta hit center stage with the FDA’s controversial reversal of its CRL for the company’s second Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug — after the biotech was ambushed by agency insiders ready to reject a second pitch based on the same disease biomarker used for the first approval for eteplirsen, without actual data on the efficacy of the drug.

On Wednesday the FDA approved the third Duchenne MD drug, based on the same biomarker. And regulators were ready to act yet again despite the lack of efficacy data.

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Cell and Gene Con­tract Man­u­fac­tur­ers Must Em­brace Dig­i­ti­za­tion

The Cell and Gene Industry is growing at a staggering 30% CAGR and is estimated to reach $14B by 20251. A number of cell, gene and stem cell therapy sponsors currently have novel drug substances and products and many rely on Contract Development Manufacturing Organizations (CDMO) to produce them with adherence to stringent regulatory cGMP conditions. Cell and gene manufacturing for both autologous (one to one) and allogenic (one to many) treatments face difficult issues such as: a complex supply chain, variability on patient and cellular level, cell expansion count and a tight scheduling of lot disposition process. This complexity affects quality, compliance and accountability in the entire vein-to-vein process for critically ill patients.

Stéphane Bancel speaks to President Donald Trump at the White House meeting on March 2 (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mod­er­na of­fers steep dis­count in US sup­ply deal — but still takes the crown with close to $2.5B in vac­cine con­tracts

The US pre-order for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine is in.

Operation Warp Speed is reserving $1.525 billion for 100 million doses of Moderna’s Phase III mRNA candidate, rounding out to about $15 per dose — including $300 million in incentive payments for timely delivery. Given that Moderna has a two-dose regimen, it’s good for vaccinating 50 million people. The US government also has the option to purchase another 400 million doses for a total of $6.6 billion, or $16.5 per dose.

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Cal­lid­i­tas bets up to $102M on a biotech buy­out, snag­ging a once-failed PBC drug

After spending years developing its oral formulation of the corticosteroid budesonide, Sweden’s Calliditas now has its sights set on the primary biliary cholangitis field.

The company will buy out France-based Genkyotex, and it’s willing to bet up to €87 million ($102 million) that Genkyotex’s failed Phase II drug, GKT831, will do better in late-stage trials.

Under the current agreement, Calliditas $CALT will initially pay €20.3 million in cash for 62.7% of Genkyotex (or €2.80 a piece for 7,236,515 shares) in early October, then circle back for the rest of Genkyotex’s shares under the same terms. If nothing changes, the whole buyout will cost Calliditas €32.3 million, plus up to  €55 million in contingent rights.

James Wilson, WuXi Global Forum at JPM20

FDA puts up a red light for Pas­sage Bio’s first gene ther­a­py pro­gram, de­lay­ing a pro­gram from James Wilson's group at Penn

Gene therapy pioneer James Wilson spearheaded animal studies demonstrating the potential of new treatments injected directly into the brain, looking to jumpstart a once-and-done fix for an extraordinarily rare disease called GM1 gangliosidosis in infants. His team at the University of Pennsylvania published their work on monkeys and handed it over to Passage Bio, a Wilson-inspired startup building a pipeline of gene therapies — with an IND for PBGM01 to lead the way.

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Phase III read­outs spell dis­as­ter for Genen­tech’s lead IBD drug

Roche had big plans for etrolizumab. Eyeing a hyper-competitive IBD and Crohn’s market where they have not historically been a player, the company rolled out 8 different Phase III trials, testing the antibody for two different uses across a range of different patient groups.

On Monday, Roche released results for 4 of those studies, and they mark a decided setback for both the Swiss pharma and their biotech sub Genentech, potentially spelling an end to a drug they put over half-a-decade and millions of dollars behind.

Qi­a­gen in­vestors spurn Ther­mo Fish­er’s takeover of­fer, de­rail­ing a $12B+ deal

Thermo Fisher Scientific had announced an $11.5 billion takeover of Dutch diagnostics company Qiagen back in March, but the deal apparently did not sit well with Qiagen investors.

After getting hammered by critics who contended that Qiagen $QGEN was worth a lot more than what Thermo Fisher wanted to spend, investors turned thumbs down on the offer — derailing the buyout even after Thermo Fisher increased its offer to $12.6 billion in July. Qiagen’s share price has been boosted considerably by Covid-19 as demand for its testing kits surged.

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Xuefeng Yu in Hong Kong, 2019 (Imaginechina via AP Images)

CanSi­no reaps $748M wind­fall from Shang­hai IPO — as it warns Covid-19 vac­cine won't be a huge mon­ey mak­er

CanSino began the year with a clear goal to secure a secondary listing on Shanghai’s STAR market. Then something more urgent came along: As a rising vaccine developer on a mission to bring global standard immunizations to China, it heeded the call to make a vaccine to protect against a virus that would paralyze the whole world.

Xuefeng Yu and his team managed to keep doing both.

More than a month after CanSino’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate is authorized for military use in China, the Hong Kong-listed company has made a roaring debut in Shanghai. It fetched $748 million (RMB$5.2 billion) by floating 24.8 million shares, and soared 88% on its first trading day.

UP­DAT­ED: How much has pre­ci­sion med­i­cine helped? A new NCI study of­fers clues but pro­vokes skep­tics

Does precision medicine work?

The approach, based on finding a drug to target a patient’s specific genes, has undoubtedly saved individual lives, spurring Lazarus-like reversals in health in once-terminally ill patients. But critics have pointed out that its pursuit has meant drug companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars to target mutations that affect narrow slices of the populations, and that many of the gains researchers thought it would bring have eroded as cancers evolve resistance.