No clear an­swers: Yes, re­cent ac­tions against Chi­nese Amer­i­can sci­en­tists do pose a threat — but maybe those of­fi­cial con­cerns about es­pi­onage are valid too

Ear­li­er this week we asked our read­ers to chime in on a con­ver­sa­tion in­spired by for­mer NIH di­rec­tor and Sanofi R&D chief Elias Zer­houni, who was con­cerned that re­cent purges of Chi­nese Amer­i­can sci­en­tists at top bio­med­ical in­sti­tu­tions could spell trou­ble for the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. While ground­ed in na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty rea­sons, he ar­gues, the US risks los­ing valu­able tal­ent and col­lab­o­ra­tions if it doesn’t han­dle the sit­u­a­tion prop­er­ly.

The re­sults to our snap poll, which gath­ered 220 re­spons­es, re­flects a lack of con­sen­sus on the three key ques­tions: How se­ri­ous is the prob­lem of aca­d­e­m­ic es­pi­onage? In try­ing to fix that is­sue, are we hurt­ing Chi­nese Amer­i­can sci­en­tists? And what, if any­thing, should be done about it?

More re­spon­dents be­lieve that wor­ries about aca­d­e­m­ic es­pi­onage are at least “some­what” well-found­ed, con­sti­tut­ing al­most 60%. On the oth­er side, 30% say “not re­al­ly” or “ab­solute­ly not,” with 10% stand­ing in the mid­dle.

“Ma­jor­i­ty of aca­d­e­m­ic find­ings are of no val­ue,” one read­er com­ments.

An­oth­er raised the con­cern that aca­d­e­mics don’t al­ways know where the line is be­tween friend­ly shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion and IP theft:

In­sti­tu­tions don’t al­ways train their fac­ul­ty and staff on ac­cept­able/un­ac­cept­able col­lab­o­ra­tion poli­cies, and there’s a fast-and-loose cul­ture in acad­e­mia on many top­ics (da­ta re­pro­ducibil­i­ty, HR, lab safe­ty, IP) that goes be­yond so-called aca­d­e­m­ic es­pi­onage.

But even for those con­cerned with some lev­el of es­pi­onage, there is a di­vide as to whether it’s a sys­temic ef­fort com­ing specif­i­cal­ly from Chi­na or bad ac­tors that are bound to pop up, re­gard­less of na­tion­al­i­ty.

A slight ma­jor­i­ty agrees that the dis­missals at MD An­der­son and Emory threat­en the en­tire Chi­nese Amer­i­can sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in the US — in par­tic­u­lar, the bio­med­ical re­search field, not least be­cause it shapes the pub­lic dis­course about sci­en­tists with roots in Chi­na.

Com­bine the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­ti-im­mi­grant stance with these re­cent events and even Amer­i­can born Chi­nese sci­en­tists like me feel threat­ened. It adds to a cli­mate of fear – who’s look­ing over our shoul­ders and mis­in­ter­pret­ing our ac­tions?

Those who hold the op­po­site view, though, say iso­lat­ed cas­es — in which in­di­vid­u­als were al­leged­ly pun­ished for shar­ing con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion and vi­o­lat­ing con­flict of in­ter­est poli­cies — don’t make a con­spir­a­cy against an en­tire eth­nic group.

Along the same lines, while 60% of re­spon­dents say they share an ur­gency to ad­dress the fears of Chi­nese Amer­i­can sci­en­tists, 20% do not and the rest are ei­ther neu­tral or haven’t formed an opin­ion.

Many in sup­port wor­ry about a re­verse brain drain, es­pe­cial­ly as they have had a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with Chi­nese-born col­leagues: “In the ab­sence of pos­i­tive in­for­ma­tion, in­di­vid­u­als will make there own de­ci­sions, and well-fund­ed Chi­nese com­pa­nies are push­ing hard for tal­ent al­ready.”

Oth­ers main­tain the prob­lem is overblown.

“It should be clear to all that there is noth­ing to be con­cerned about if sci­en­tists are not par­tic­i­pat­ing in ques­tion­able part­ner­ships with for­eign gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies or com­pa­nies, etc. It seems crazy to sug­gest that sci­en­tists who work with­in the nor­mal con­fines of acad­e­mia or in­dus­try would be at risk with­out ad­di­tion­al ac­tion.”

What about Zer­houni’s pro­pos­al to set up a blue-rib­bon com­mit­tee to draft a new set of clear­ly de­fined rules to gov­ern for­eign sci­en­tif­ic en­gage­ment?

The idea is clear­ly still in its in­fan­cy, with more than half re­spond­ing “neu­tral” or “no opin­ion” and some pro­fess­ing lack of un­der­stand­ing as to what that en­tails. Sup­port and dis­agree­ment are split right down the mid­dle.

Go­ing back to the ex­pul­sions that trig­gered the con­ver­sa­tion, a re­spon­dent sug­gests the so­lu­tion will be more in­for­ma­tion.

The best way for­ward is for the gov­ern­ment to spell out ex­act­ly what the ev­i­dence against these in­di­vid­u­als was. If it is con­vinc­ing to sci­en­tists that their in­ten­tions re­al­ly were to hurt Amer­i­can sci­ence and ben­e­fit Chi­nese, the ac­tions will be ac­cept­ed and will serve as a warn­ing to oth­ers per­haps con­sid­er­ing sim­i­lar ad­ven­tures. On the oth­er hand, if the ev­i­dence is weak or they mis­in­ter­pret­ed the in­tent of the ac­tions of these peo­ple, then wide­spread pan­ic will en­sue, with or with­out a “blue rib­bon pan­el”.

So­cial im­age: Shut­ter­stock

Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors. 

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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Part club, part guide, part land­lord: Arie Bellde­grun is blue­print­ing a string of be­spoke biotech com­plex­es in glob­al boom­towns — start­ing with Boston

The biotech industry is getting a landlord, unlike anything it’s ever known before.

Inspired by his recent experiences scrounging for space in Boston and the Bay Area, master biotech builder, investor, and global dealmaker Arie Belldegrun has organized a new venture to build a new, 250,000 square foot biopharma building in Boston’s Seaport district — home to Vertex and a number of up-and-coming biotech players.

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