Outspoken drug pricing researcher Peter Bach takes CMO gig at liquid biopsy startup
After spending more than a decade criticizing the industry over drug pricing, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s outspoken researcher Peter Bach is jumping over to the C-suite of a liquid biopsy startup.
Bach, known for his frank tweets and frequent editorials, is taking the CMO role at Delfi Diagnostics, a Baltimore-based biotech that’s looking for a better way to screen the blood for cancer. The company snagged $100 million at the beginning of the year, and a couple months ago initiated a national trial for lung cancer screening.
“It wasn’t hard to spot Delfi appearing on the scene between its Series A announcement and stunning results in Nature,” Bach told Endpoints News in an email.
The Madison, WI native spent the last 23 years at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where he’s director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes. His parents, who were both professors at the University of Wisconsin, inspired him to pursue a career in medicine, Bach said during a 2017 TEDMED talk. But it was a trip to New York City with his uncle that “ultimately allowed me to understand US pharmaceutical pricing.”
Bach compared the current state of drug pricing to a New York hustler playing three-card Monte. The man would shuffle three cards — two black and one red — and instruct passersby to follow the red one. But whenever an audience member guessed correctly, he would furtively swap it out for a black one.
“That insight has helped me understand what’s wrong with pharmaceutical pricing,” he said during the talk. “Adjusted for inflation and dosing over the last 50 years, cancer drug prices have risen 100-fold … When rising prices drive innovation, they lead to innovation so high-priced that some people can’t afford it.”
In 2012, he and two other colleagues published an editorial in the New York Times about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s decision to reject Sanofi’s “phenomenally expensive” cancer drug — a move that later led Sanofi to slash the price by about half. He and his team later released DrugAbacus in 2015, an interactive tool comparing a drug’s value versus its price.
“There’s a quote Peter and I were just chatting about,” Delfi CEO Victor Velculescu told Endpoints in an interview. “Cancer was a disease of age. We don’t want it to become a disease of the poor.”
Delfi thinks it has a cost-effective liquid biopsy approach, which could detect cancer earlier in patients and lead to fewer deaths. The idea is to utilize machine learning to conduct whole genome sequencing from a patient’s blood. What the team is looking for are naturally occurring fragmentation patterns that are usually pretty consistent in healthy individuals. But in cancer patients, the pattern is different.
That’s because the DNA inside the cancer is abnormally packaged, and when cells die and release the DNA in the bloodstream, it leads to abnormal breakages and abnormal profiles that can then be detected, Velculescu said. He believes the approach could tell scientists where the cancer originated, and has the potential for use across a variety of cancer types.
According to a study in Nature, the method delivered sensitivities ranging from 57% to over 99% among seven different types of cancer.
“I know most people know me for my work in health payment policy and pharmaceuticals, but I actually worked for more than a decade in cancer screening and prevention and particularly in lung cancer screening,” Bach said in an email. “Then I got to know the team of scientists at the heart of the company and cannot wait to work on developing a technology that could form the basis of a low cost highly sensitive test that could help capture the unrealized gains in lung cancer screening and more broadly.”