In­dus­try lead­ers need to speak out now more than ever

Biotech Voices is a collection of exclusive opinion editorials from some of the leading voices in biopharma on the biggest industry questions today. Think you have a voice that should be heard? Reach out to Amber Tong.

The House im­peach­ment man­agers pre­sent­ed a grip­ping, vis­cer­al case two weeks ago in pros­e­cut­ing the 45th pres­i­dent for in­cite­ment of mob vi­o­lence to stop the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of a free and fair US elec­tion.

Yet nev­er has a case so damn­ing pre­saged an ac­quit­tal so fore­gone. Sev­en brave sen­a­tors crossed the aisle to do the right thing and vote for a re­pub­lic, if we can keep it.

Just be­cause the im­peach­ment tri­al is over does not mean the threat to our de­mo­c­ra­t­ic norms is. The Sen­ate ac­quit­tal comes with a long-term cost: the hy­per­vig­i­lance of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. It is up to all of us to de­ter­mine what the for­mer pres­i­dent’s con­duct means for our na­tion’s fu­ture.

In biotech­nol­o­gy, our day job is to dis­cov­er and de­vel­op in­no­v­a­tive, ground­break­ing ther­a­pies and see that they get de­liv­ered fair­ly to the world’s pa­tient pop­u­la­tions. My com­pa­ny, Nkar­ta Ther­a­peu­tics, is com­mit­ted to re­al­iz­ing the po­ten­tial of the body’s nat­ur­al killer cells to treat can­cer. As CEOs, in­ten­sive fo­cus on our day jobs does not ex­cuse us from the role that our boards and col­leagues re­ly on us to play, which is to lead. Lead­er­ship, at its core, means call­ing out bad be­hav­ior and stand­ing up for what is right.

In the 2020 elec­tion, the Amer­i­can peo­ple vot­ed for a new ad­min­is­tra­tion com­mit­ted to sci­en­tif­ic in­tegri­ty, so­cial jus­tice, racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and eco­nom­ic re­new­al. How­ev­er, I be­lieve that the last four years un­leashed malev­o­lent forces in our so­ci­ety; how quick­ly, and if, Pan­do­ra’s box can be closed is an open ques­tion.

Emerg­ing biotech com­pa­nies re­cruit top sci­en­tists from every race, cul­ture and back­ground. For me, build­ing an in­clu­sive cul­ture that tru­ly cel­e­brates our dif­fer­ences means that si­lence is not an op­tion. I once had an in­vestor call me and fret that he had Googled my com­pa­ny name and saw as many ar­ti­cles on the first screen about so­cial jus­tice as he did about break­through sci­ence. I asked him if he had any doubts that I am do­ing every­thing in my pow­er to suc­ceed sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and fi­nan­cial­ly. “None what­so­ev­er,” he said.

“That makes me hap­py to hear,” I replied. “Those ar­ti­cles you saw — and the com­pa­ny val­ues they rep­re­sent — are a big rea­son why the team is work­ing so hard on the sci­ence and feels as in­vest­ed in this com­pa­ny as you do.”

His­tor­i­cal­ly, many bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal CEOs have been care­ful to watch our words so we do not alien­ate the par­ty that be­lieves in the free mar­kets up­on which our suc­cess ul­ti­mate­ly de­pends. How­ev­er, I have be­come in­creas­ing­ly out­spo­ken in my be­lief that biotech CEOs need to be more out­spo­ken in their be­liefs.

In to­day’s po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, I be­lieve it is more im­por­tant than ever that we show the par­ty in pow­er our hearts, our true val­ues and our com­mit­ment to pa­tients. For me, that starts with speak­ing out against a new breed of cult-of-per­son­al­i­ty pop­ulism that dis­dains sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, traf­fics in racism and vi­o­lent ri­ots and un­der­mines democ­ra­cy.

Amer­i­can lead­ers across gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try, me­dia, ed­u­ca­tion and be­yond have a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to use our voic­es to de­fend shared val­ues that should tran­scend par­ti­san af­fil­i­a­tion. The free­doms too many Amer­i­cans take for grant­ed can be in­stant­ly lost, and tra­di­tion­al al­lies of con­ser­v­a­tives like the bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try are unique­ly sit­u­at­ed to de­mar­cate un­cross­able lines.

Why take the risk? Be­cause si­lence is a greater risk. Our in­dus­try de­pends on de­mo­c­ra­t­ic sta­bil­i­ty and the mar­ket con­fi­dence it in­spires. Sta­ble mar­kets are why biotech en­tre­pre­neurs can raise the enor­mous cap­i­tal re­quired to bring long­shot break­throughs to pa­tients. For this rea­son and many more, we can­not turn our heads at threats to the foun­da­tion of the U.S. po­lit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem.

That’s why the bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try de­cid­ed to re­con­sid­er po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to mem­bers of Con­gress who sup­port­ed over­turn­ing the re­sults of a con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly prop­er and ex­haus­tive­ly ad­ju­di­cat­ed elec­tion. As the vice chair of the Biotech­nol­o­gy In­no­va­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (BIO), the largest biotech in­dus­try group, I was heart­ened that so many of my col­leagues on both sides of the aisle agreed that this was the right course of ac­tion.

But the best way to com­bat dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­val­i­date white su­prema­cy is to em­brace racial di­ver­si­ty and to reck­on with past so­ci­etal trans­gres­sions. In the health­care sys­tem, that means ac­knowl­edg­ing lega­cies of mis­treat­ment and mis­trust that have made mi­nori­ties dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly skep­ti­cal about vac­cines and clin­i­cal tri­al par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Pfiz­er and Mod­er­na en­rolled an im­pres­sive 42% and 37% mi­nori­ties, re­spec­tive­ly, in their Phase III COVID-19 vac­cine clin­i­cal tri­als. Me­dia and pa­tient ad­vo­cates want to know if this is a flash in the pan or an on­go­ing com­mit­ment. CEOs must con­tin­ue to speak out and act af­fir­ma­tive­ly if we are to main­tain cred­i­bil­i­ty and car­ry that mo­men­tum over to di­ver­si­fy tri­als in oth­er dis­ease ar­eas. Pro­grams like BIO Equal­i­ty rep­re­sent a long-term, in­dus­try­wide ef­fort to fight for di­ver­si­ty, ac­cess and af­ford­abil­i­ty for all pa­tients. Nkar­ta is proud to be a BIO mem­ber.

My ap­proach to drug de­vel­op­ment is in­formed by my own ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing with Crohn’s dis­ease and run­ning a pa­tient ad­vo­ca­cy group for chil­dren with bow­el and blad­der con­di­tions. I can speak the heresy that drug costs are, in fact, too high, be­cause I’m talk­ing about low­er­ing pa­tient out-of-pock­et costs, not slash­ing in­sur­ance and gov­ern­ment re­im­burse­ment rates that have en­abled us to in­no­vate life-sav­ing vac­cines and an­ti­bod­ies against COVID-19 with record speed.

I can agree with HHS Sec­re­tary De­signee Xavier Be­cer­ra that health care is a fun­da­men­tal right but strong­ly dis­agree that in­val­i­dat­ing patents is a smart strat­e­gy to help pa­tients ac­cess med­i­cine. I can be­lieve in the so­cial con­tract that al­lows new med­i­cines — whether small mol­e­cules, pro­teins, an­ti­bod­ies or cell ther­a­pies — to be priced for a re­turn on in­vest­ment ini­tial­ly so long as gener­ics en­ter the mar­ket with­out de­lay, un­nec­es­sary ne­go­ti­a­tion or com­pli­ca­tion once patents ex­pire.

I can agree that Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) is a pa­tri­ot but dis­agree with her state­ment that Big Phar­ma com­pa­nies buy­ing up small­er ones some­how de­val­ues them. Ac­tu­al­ly, this dy­nam­ic churn frees sci­en­tists to start new com­pa­nies and in­no­vate anew, while large com­pa­nies — with their glob­al sales teams and armies of com­mer­cial pro­fes­sion­als and drug de­vel­op­ers — sell, mar­ket and dis­trib­ute new med­i­cines.

Fight­ing for de­mo­c­ra­t­ic ideals doesn’t mean fi­deli­ty to politi­cians from any par­tic­u­lar par­ty. For me, in these tu­mul­tuous times, it is about hav­ing a moral com­pass, do­ing what’s right and speak­ing up for pa­tients and sci­en­tists who rep­re­sent the glo­ri­ous di­ver­si­ty and great hope of our plan­et.

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (Efren Landaos/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Pfiz­er makes an­oth­er bil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ment in Eu­rope and ex­pands again in Michi­gan

Pfizer is continuing its run of manufacturing site expansions with two new large investments in the US and Europe.

The New York-based pharma giant’s site in Kalamazoo, MI, has seen a lot of attention over the past year. As a major piece of the manufacturing network for Covid-19 vaccines and antivirals, Pfizer is gearing up to place more money into the site. Pfizer announced it will place $750 million into the facility, mainly to establish “modular aseptic processing” (MAP) production and create around 300 jobs at the site.

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Up­dat­ed: FDA re­mains silent on or­phan drug ex­clu­siv­i­ty af­ter last year's court loss

Since losing a controversial court case over orphan drug exclusivity last year, the FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development has remained entirely silent on orphan exclusivity for any product approved since last November, leaving many sponsors in limbo on what to expect.

That silence means that for more than 70 orphan-designated indications for more than 60 products, OOPD has issued no public determination on the seven-year orphan exclusivity in the Orange Book, and no new listings of orphan exclusivity appear in OOPD’s searchable database, as highlighted recently by George O’Brien, a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington, DC office.

Yuling Li, Innoforce CEO

In­no­force opens new man­u­fac­tur­ing site in Chi­na

Innoforce is off to the races at its new site in the city of Hangzhou, China.

The Chinese CDMO announced last week that it has started manufacturing at the new facility, which was built to offer process development and manufacturing operations for RNA, plasmid DNA, viral vectors and other cell therapeutics. It will also serve as Innoforce’s corporate HQ.

The company said it’s investing more than $200 million in the 550,000-square-foot manufacturing base for advanced therapies. The GMP manufacturing facility features space for producing plasmids with three 30-liter bioreactors. For viral vector manufacturing, Innoforce also has 200- and 500-liter bioreactors at its disposal, along with eight suites to make cell therapies. The site also includes several labs and warehouse spaces.

FDA grants or­phan drug des­ig­na­tion to Al­ger­non's ifen­prodil, while ex­clu­siv­i­ty re­mains un­clear

As the FDA remains silent on orphan drug exclusivity in the wake of a controversial court case, the agency continues to hand out new designations. The latest: Algernon Pharmaceuticals’ experimental lung disease drug ifenprodil.

The Vancouver-based company announced on Monday that ifenprodil received orphan designation in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a chronic lung condition that results in scarring of the lungs.  Most IPF patients suffer with a dry cough, and breathing can become difficult.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Thibault Camus/AP Images, Pool)

No­var­tis bol­sters Plu­vic­to's case in prostate can­cer with PhI­II re­sults

The prognosis is poor for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients. Novartis wants to change that by making its recently approved Pluvicto available to patients earlier in their course of treatment.

The Swiss pharma giant unveiled Phase III results Monday suggesting that Pluvicto was able to halt disease progression in certain prostate cancer patients when administered after androgen-receptor pathway inhibitor (ARPI) therapy, but without prior taxane-based chemotherapy. The drug is currently approved for patients after they’ve received both ARPI and chemo.

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Rick Modi, Affinia Therapeutics CEO

Ver­tex-part­nered gene ther­a­py biotech Affinia scraps IPO plans

Affinia Therapeutics has ditched its plans to go public in a relatively closed-door market that has not favored Nasdaq debuts for the drug development industry most of this year. A pandemic surge in 2020 and 2021 opened the doors for many preclinical startups, which caught Affinia’s attention and gave the gene therapy biotech confidence in the beginning days of 2022 to send in its S-1.

But on Friday, Affinia threw in the S-1 towel and concluded now is not the time to step onto Wall Street. The biotech has put out few public announcements since the spring of this year. Endpoints News picked the startup as one of its 11 biotechs to watch last year.

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Af­ter M&A fell through, Ther­a­peu­tic­sMD sells hor­mone ther­a­py, con­tra­cep­tive ring for $140M cash plus roy­al­ties

TherapeuticsMD, a women’s health company whose one-time billion-dollar valuation seems a distant memory as its blockbuster aspirations petered out, is finally cashing out.

Australia’s Mayne Pharma is paying $140 million upfront to license essentially TherapeuticsMD’s whole portfolio, including two prescription drugs that treat conditions relating to menopause, a contraceptive vaginal ring as well as its prescription prenatal vitamin brands.

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Big week for Alzheimer’s da­ta; As­traZeneca buys cell ther­a­py start­up; Dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics hits a pay­er wall; and more

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