Novartis to spin off Alcon eye care unit, buy back $5B in stock; Rival CAR-Ts from Novartis and Gilead get thumbs up in Europe

→ Having mulled over it for more than a year, Novartis $NVS is finally spinning off Alcon, the eye care unit that former CEO Daniel Vasella purchased for a total of $51.6 billion. His tenure marked an era when pharmaceutical companies were trying to diversify their business in face of generic competition to branded drugs. But Novartis is a different company now, led by former R&D chief Vas Narasimhan, who told Bloomberg of the decision: “We want to be able to focus our capital allocation to our core, and we believe our core is going to be novel platforms to develop innovative medicines and to invest in data and digital technologies.” The move, which follows Narasimhan’s decision to sell Novartis’ stake in a consumer healthcare joint venture to partner GSK for $13 billion, comes at a time Alcon — long considered an underperformer — is bouncing back on revenue. That might help with the valuation, which ex-CEO Joe Jimenez said could range from $25 billion to $35 billion. Current Alcon CEO Mike Ball will become chairman after the spinoff, with COO David Endicott slated to become the new chief — assuming the motion goes through at Novartis’ annual general meeting next year. After the spin-off wraps up in the first half of 2019, Novartis is planning to buy back up to $5 billion in stock.

→ Two rival CAR-T drugs both got nods from the European Medicines Agency panel, a sign that their paths to the European market is clear. The Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) recommended Novartis$NVS Kymriah for the treatment of B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL). At the same time, the CHMP recommended Gilead’s $GILD Yescarta for DLBCL and primary mediastinal B cell lymphoma and transformed follicular lymphoma. Europe’ regulatory agency usually follows the committee’s advice, which means both CAR-Ts could soon go head-to-head in DLBCL in Europe.

→ Ultragenyx $RARE also scored CHMP’s positive opinion, recommending the company’s drug Mepsevii to treat non-neurological manifestations of Mucopolysaccaridosis VII in Europe. Mepsevii is an enzyme replacement therapy designed to replace the deficient lysosomal enzyme beta-glucuronidase in patients with MPS VII, a progressive and debilitating rare genetic disease.

→ Precision Therapeutics, an Eagan, Minnesota-based company applying AI to personalized medicine and drug discovery, is merging with Pittsburgh diagnostics company Helomics. The merger ups Precision’s stake in Helomics from 25% to 100%, and gets Precision access to Helomics’ suite of AI, precision diagnostic, and integrated CRO capabilities, the companies said in a statement. Carl Schwartz, Precision’s CEO, commented, “Upon completion of the merger, we will have complete ownership of Helomics’ one of a kind tumor database, which has been developed over 15 years of clinical testing and contains drug response profiles of over 149,000 patient cancer tumors, and its D-CHIP bioinformatics engine that provides actionable insights into this data.”

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