In­side Ver­tex 3.0: Can Resh­ma Ke­wal­ra­mani re­peat one of biotech's biggest suc­cess sto­ries 'a­gain and again and again'?

This was not how Reshma Kewalramani imagined spending her first day as Vertex CEO. The 47-year-old nephrologist should’ve been in a spacious window office on the 14th floor of the biotech’s glassy Boston Seaport headquarters, three rooms down from where she had spent the last three years. There should have been family photos on the desk, scientists buzzing in the labs beneath, and, feet away, executives she knew and trusted, briefing her on potential cures for sickle cell disease and diabetes.

Instead, on that bone-chillingly cold day last spring, she was at a makeshift desk in the dimly lit basement of her home outside Boston, a bivouac chosen because it was closest to the Wifi router. Her closest companion was Ferris Bueller’s smug face on the wall and she spent the day jumping from Zoom call to Zoom call, worried less about making new drugs than making sure her employees were safe and that the global supply chain didn’t leave a cystic fibrosis patient without access to the Vertex pills that had changed their life. It was April 1, 2020.

“These are not what I thought would be the two of the highest priorities,” she tells me. “The safety of our people? You take it for granted.”

The pandemic hit Vertex at the worst possible time. Over the last decade, CEO Jeffrey Leiden, a jovial but shrewd and commanding figure, had pushed the development of those CF drugs, turning the most common fatal genetic disease in US and Europe into, for 90% of patients, a treatable condition. In the process, they had gone from a $6 billion to a $60 billion company and won the rare collective awe of the business, medical and patient communities. “I scream it from the rooftops,” says Bob Coughlin, former CEO of industry group MassBio, whose 19-year-old son has CF. “He’s a whole new person, I’m filled with more gratitude than I’ve ever had in my whole damn life.”

Now, just as Leiden passed the torch, the entire world was collapsing. It was a trial by wildfire for Kewalramani, who had already been an unlikely choice as CEO. The heads of large biotechs are almost exclusively businesspeople, executives whose chief job is to sell the drugs the company has already developed and find other companies to acquire. If they have MDs, they also have an MBA or 20 years of experience in sales. All, historically, have been men.

Kewalramani was a clear-eyed, affable physician who had trained at Boston’s most prestigious hospitals and spent 12 years running trials at Amgen, but she had little experience on the business side of biotech. For the prior three years, leading Vertex’s medical team, she stood opposite the executive committee at key moments, explaining results from trials she designed and ran in sickle cell and cystic fibrosis.

She came from the medical side, which was unique,” says Terry McGuire, founder and general partner of the Boston-based biotech VC Polaris Partners. “It speaks to their desire to really focus on what’s going on in the clinic and for patients.” Indeed, Vertex had only considered physician-scientists for the role. They had big plans for the role — for what they called Vertex 3.0. Although they had become known as the CF company, for years, Leiden told anyone who would listen that he didn’t just want to transform one disease: He planned to use the lavish proceeds from those pills to cure CF completely and either cure or defang an Infernal Council of famous ailments: Sickle cell disease, diabetes, muscular dystrophy and pain, among others.

It was as ambitious a plan as a biotech had ever put forward, spanning medical disciplines from hematology to nephrology and technologies from old-fashioned pills to new forms of CRISPR gene editing, and they needed someone with unimpeachable scientific chops to carry it out. If Kewalramani and her team can, they will change the face of medicine: Not just for one rare disease but several, and a few not so rare ones as well. They could also set off the same string of rancorous global debates that have followed Vertex’s CF drugs, as the company charged more than what many countries said they could pay. Kewalramani, while striking a less abrasive tone than her predecessor, has pledged to keep the same pricing strategy moving forward.

“We’re going to do what we did in CF,” Kewalramani tells me, echoing a promise she makes repeatedly. “Again and again and again.” But first they would have to deal with Covid-19.

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A new era of treat­ment: How bio­mark­ers are chang­ing the way we think about can­cer

AJ Patel was recovering from a complicated brain surgery when his oncologist burst into the hospital room yelling, “I’ve got some really great news for you!”

For two years, Patel had been going from doctor to doctor trying to diagnose his wheezing, only to be dealt the devastating news that he had stage IV lung cancer and only six months to live. And then they found the brain tumors.

“What are you talking about?” Patel asked. He had never seen an oncologist so happy.

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Serhat Gumrukçu, Enochian BioSciences co-founder (Seraph Research Institute)

LA biotech founder ar­rest­ed, charged in mur­der-for-hire scheme be­hind 2018 death

A biotech founder has been arrested and charged for his role in a murder-for-hire scheme that resulted in the death of a man in Vermont back in 2018.

Serhat Gumrukçu, the co-founder of Enochian BioSciences, was arrested in Los Angeles, where the company is based, according to the Department of Justice. He was charged alongside Berk Eratay of Las Vegas, and a third person, Jerry Banks of Colorado, was previously arrested for kidnapping and allegedly murdering the victim, Gregory Davis.

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Adam Russell, ARPA-H's incoming acting deputy director

NI­H's new, in­de­pen­dent break­through drug ac­cel­er­a­tor ARPA-H gets its first em­ploy­ee

Despite the controversy of housing it in NIH, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday afternoon formally announced the establishment of the Advanced Research Project Agency for Health (ARPA-H) as an independent entity within the NIH, as HHS had previously stipulated that “NIH may not subject ARPA-H to NIH policies.”

Becerra also announced the appointment of ARPA-H’s inaugural employee, Adam Russell, who will serve as acting deputy director.

ProFound Therapeutics founding team

Flag­ship's lat­est biotech could turn some of the thou­sands of new pro­teins it dis­cov­ered in­to ther­a­pies — and it has $75M to start

Flagship Pioneering, the incubator of Moderna and dozens of other biotechs, says it has landed upon tens of thousands of previously undiscovered human proteins. The VC shop wants to potentially turn them into therapeutics.

Like other drug developers that have turned proteins into therapeutics (think insulin for diabetes), Flagship’s latest creation, ProFound Therapeutics, wants to tap into this new trove of proteins as part of its mission to treat indications ranging from rare diseases to cancer to immunological diseases.

Richard Silverman, Akava Therapeutics founder and Northwestern professor

This time around, Lyri­ca's in­ven­tor is de­vel­op­ing his North­west­ern dis­cov­er­ies at his own biotech

Richard Silverman was left in the dark for the last five years of clinical development of the drug he discovered. The Northwestern University professor found out about the first approval of Lyrica, in the last few days of 2004, like most other people: in the newspaper.

What became one of Pfizer’s top-selling meds, at $5 billion in 2017 global sales before losing patent protection in 2019, started slipping out of his hands when Northwestern licensed it out to Parke-Davis, one of two biotechs that showed interest in developing the drug in the pre-email days, when the university’s two-person tech transfer team had to ship out letters to garner industry appetite.

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David Ricks, Eli Lilly CEO (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Eli Lil­ly set to in­vest $2.1B in home state man­u­fac­tur­ing boost

Eli Lilly is looking to expand its footprint in its home Hoosier State by making a major investment in manufacturing.

The pharma is investing $2.1 billion in two new manufacturing sites at Indiana’s LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District in Boone County, northwest of Lilly’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

The two new facilities will expand Lilly’s manufacturing network for active ingredients and new therapeutic modalities, including genetic medicines, according to a press release.

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Up­dat­ed: US sees spike in Paxlovid us­age as Mer­ck­'s mol­nupi­ravir and As­traZeneca's Evusheld are slow­er off the shelf

New data from HHS show that more than 162,000 courses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 antiviral Paxlovid were administered across the US over the past week, continuing a streak of increased usage of the pill, and signaling not only rising case numbers but more awareness of how to access it.

In comparison to this week, about 670,000 courses of the Pfizer pill have been administered across the first five months since Paxlovid has been on the US market, averaging about 33,000 courses administered per week in that time.

Pfiz­er and CD­MOs ramp up Paxlovid man­u­fac­tur­ing with Kala­ma­zoo plant ex­pan­sion lead­ing the way

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve, pharma companies and manufacturers are exploring how to step up production on antivirals.

Pfizer is planning to expand its Kalamazoo-area facility to increase manufacturing capabilities for the oral Covid-19 antiviral Paxlovid, according to a report from Michigan-based news site MLive. The expansion of the facility, which serves as Pfizer’s largest manufacturing location, is expected to create hundreds of “high-skilled” STEM jobs, MLive reported. No details about the project’s cost and timeline have been released, but according to MLive, Pfizer will announce the details of the expansion at some point in early June.

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FDA spells out the rules and re­stric­tions for states seek­ing to im­port drugs from Cana­da

The FDA is offering more of an explanation of the guardrails around its program that may soon allow states to import prescription drugs in some select circumstances from Canada, but only if such imports will result in significant cost reductions for consumers.

While the agency has yet to sign off on any of the 5 state plans in the works so far, and PhRMA’s suit to block the Trump-era rule allowing such imports is stalled, the new Q&A guidance spells out the various restrictions that states will have to abide by, potentially signaling that a state approval is coming.