Promi­nent can­cer bi­ol­o­gist In­der Ver­ma re­signs from Salk in wake of sex­u­al ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions

Fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of sex­u­al ha­rass­ment, In­der Ver­ma, a promi­nent can­cer bi­ol­o­gist not­ed for his con­tri­bu­tion to the fields of gene ther­a­py and im­muno-on­col­o­gy, has re­signed from the Salk In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cal Stud­ies.

The San Diego-based in­sti­tute said Ver­ma re­signed on June 6, days be­fore the board of trustees were sched­uled to re­view the in­sti­tute’s for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to al­le­ga­tions against him. The board had con­vened to­day to dis­cuss those find­ings — based on which “ap­pro­pri­ate re­spon­sive ac­tion” had been con­sid­ered — but end­ed up vot­ing unan­i­mous­ly to ac­cept his res­ig­na­tion.

In April, Sci­ence pub­lished a de­tailed ac­count of al­le­ga­tions made by eight women who said that Ver­ma “grabbed their breasts, pinched their but­tocks, forcibly kissed them, propo­si­tioned them, and re­peat­ed­ly com­ment­ed on their phys­i­cal at­trib­ut­es in pro­fes­sion­al set­tings.” Among them were a Salk lab tech­ni­cian, a post­doc­tor­al re­searcher, oth­er Salk staffers and fac­ul­ty, and women out­side of the in­sti­tute who had pro­fes­sion­al en­coun­ters with Ver­ma. Five were named while three re­quest­ed anonymi­ty.

Salk sus­pend­ed Ver­ma, who first joined in 1974, when the in­sti­tute re­ceived a list of ques­tions from Sci­ence writer Mered­ith Wad­man a few days pri­or to the sto­ry’s pub­li­ca­tion and saw claims that the in­sti­tute “was not pre­vi­ous­ly aware of.” That led them to al­so ex­pand the scope of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on Ver­ma that be­gan in Feb­ru­ary in re­sponse to oth­er al­le­ga­tions.

At that time, Ver­ma de­nied the al­le­ga­tions through a state­ment to the me­dia:

I have nev­er used my po­si­tion at the Salk In­sti­tute to take ad­van­tage of oth­ers. I have al­so nev­er en­gaged in any sort of in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with any­one af­fil­i­at­ed with the Salk In­sti­tute. I have nev­er in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ly touched, nor have I made any sex­u­al­ly charged com­ments, to any­one af­fil­i­at­ed with the Salk In­sti­tute. I have nev­er al­lowed any of­fen­sive or sex­u­al­ly charged con­ver­sa­tions, jokes, ma­te­r­i­al, etc. to oc­cur at the Salk In­sti­tute.

Ver­ma’s de­par­ture may mark an end to his episode of the #MeToo move­ment, but Salk’s ten­sion with women among its ranks is far from over.

In 2017, three fe­male Salk se­nior sci­en­tists sued the in­sti­tute for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. Bi­ol­o­gists Kather­ine Jones, Vic­ki Lund­blad and Bev­er­ly Emer­son each filed law­suits ac­cus­ing Salk of be­ing an “old boys’ club” where women were shut out of op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­sis­tent­ly un­der­val­ued.

As a re­sult of the law­suits, Ver­ma — who was named in two of them for im­ped­ing fe­male sci­en­tists’ ca­reer ad­vance­ment — was placed on leave as ed­i­tor-in-chief of the pres­ti­gious Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences (PNAS) jour­nal. He re­signed from the po­si­tion in May.

The law­suits are ex­pect­ed to go to tri­al in De­cem­ber.

Im­age: In­der Ver­ma. SALK

Brent Saunders [Getty Photos]

UP­DAT­ED: Ab­b­Vie seals $63B deal to buy a trou­bled Al­ler­gan — spelling out $1B in R&D cuts

Brent Saunders has found his way out of the current fix he’s in at Allergan $AGN. He’s selling the company to AbbVie for $63 billion in the latest example of the hot M&A market in biopharma.

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Novotech CEO Dr. John Moller

Novotech CRO Award­ed Frost & Sul­li­van Best Biotech CRO Asia-Pa­cif­ic 2019

Known in the in­dus­try as the Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO, Novotech is now lead CRO ser­vices provider for the grow­ing num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­al biotechs se­lect­ing the re­gion for their stud­ies.

Re­flect­ing this Asia-Pa­cif­ic growth, Novotech staff num­bers are up 20% since De­cem­ber 2018 to 600 in-house clin­i­cal re­search peo­ple across a full range of ser­vices, across the re­gion.

Novotech’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been rec­og­nized by an­a­lysts like Frost & Sul­li­van, most re­cent­ly with the pres­ti­gious Asia-Pa­cif­ic CRO Biotech of the year award for best prac­tices in clin­i­cal re­search for biotechs for the fifth year. See oth­er awards here.

Richard Gonzalez testifying in front of Senate Finance Committee, February 2019 [AP Images]

Ab­b­Vie's $63B buy­out spot­lights the re­turn of ma­jor M&A deals — de­spite the back­lash

Big time M&A is back. But for how long?

Over the past 18 months we’ve now seen three major buyouts announced: Takeda/Shire; Bristol-Myers/Celgene and now AbbVie/Allergan. And with this latest deal it’s increasingly clear that the sharp fall from grace suffered by high-profile players which have seen their share prices blasted has created an opening for the growth players in big pharma to up their game — in sharp contrast to the popular bolt-on deals that have been driving the growth strategy at Novartis, Merck, Roche and others.

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UP­DAT­ED: In sur­prise switch, Bris­tol-My­ers is sell­ing off block­buster Ote­zla, promis­ing to com­plete Cel­gene ac­qui­si­tion — just lat­er

Apart from revealing its checkpoint inhibitor Opdivo blew a big liver cancer study on Monday, Bristol-Myers Squibb said its plans to swallow Celgene will require the sale of blockbuster psoriasis treatment Otezla to keep the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at bay.

The announcement — which has potentially delayed the completion of the takeover to early 2020 — irked investors, triggering the New York-based drugmaker’s shares to tumble Monday morning in premarket trading.

Celgene’s Otezla, approved in 2014 for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, is a rising star. It generated global sales of $1.6 billion last year, up from the nearly $1.3 billion in 2017. Apart from the partial overlap of Bristol-Myers injectable Orencia, the company’s rival oral TYK2 psoriasis drug is in late-stage development, after the firm posted encouraging mid-stage data on the drug, BMS-986165, last fall. With Monday’s decision, it appears Bristol-Myers is favoring its experimental drug, and discounting Otezla’s future.

The move blindsided some analysts. Credit Suisse’s Vamil Divan noted just days ago:

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Image: Chris Varma. Frontier

UP­DAT­ED: Chris Var­ma un­veils MP­M's lat­est start­up — eye­ing 'un­drug­gable' can­cer tar­gets and pow­ered by ma­chine learn­ing, $67M

Two years af­ter MPM Cap­i­tal en­list­ed Chris Var­ma on its busy on­col­o­gy team, the for­mer en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence is un­veil­ing his first ven­ture project out of his new stomp­ing grounds in the Bay Area: Fron­tier Med­i­cines.

For Var­ma, who’s al­so co-found­ed Blue­print Med­i­cines and built com­pa­nies at Third Rock and Flag­ship, this marks an­oth­er op­por­tu­ni­ty to ap­ply some cut­ting-edge sci­ence to “sev­er­al of the most im­por­tant and dif­fi­cult tar­gets in can­cer” — tar­gets that oth­ers have tried to tack­le with more clas­si­cal meth­ods and failed. The launch round comes in at $67 mil­lion, which should go some way in scaf­fold­ing a pre­clin­i­cal pipeline and push one or more as­sets in­to the clin­ic three years from now, he tells me.

The top 15 mega-deals in bio­phar­ma: Ab­b­Vie and Bris­tol-My­ers ac­qui­si­tions stir fresh de­bate over what's too big to buy

The debate over what’s too big to buy in biotech is back. A number of top analysts went right after AbbVie’s rationale for the Allergan deal today, just as Bristol-Myers Squibb stirred immediate debate over the worth and wisdom of acquiring Celgene.

To help provide some added context to this discussion, we asked DealForma chief Chris Dokomajilar to look over the past decade of major M&A in biopharma to decipher the top 15 plays.

The new numbers, unadjusted for inflation, harken back to the days of the Pfizer-Wyeth buyout and Merck’s decision to absorb Schering-Plough — both triggered in 2009. The heat over those acquisitions made the big pharma mega-deal highly unpopular for most everyone — except Pfizer — as industry leaders swore off almost all but the handy bolt-on acquisition.

Until recently.

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SQZ, Ery­tech kick off $57M cell ther­a­py part­ner­ship; Jean-Paul Kress lands new CEO gig at Mor­phoSys

→ In a mar­riage of two tech­nolo­gies meant to make cell ther­a­pies more pow­er­ful, SQZ Biotech is team­ing up with France’s Ery­tech Phar­ma for a col­lab­o­ra­tion, with $57 mil­lion re­served for the first project and $50 mil­lion for each sub­se­quent ap­proval (prod­uct or in­di­ca­tion). Hav­ing ac­cess to Ery­tech’s method of fash­ion­ing ther­a­peu­tics from red blood cells, the Cam­bridge, MA-based com­pa­ny said, will am­pli­fy SQZ’s cell en­gi­neer­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and al­low them to de­vleop a new class of im­munomod­u­la­to­ry ther­a­pies. Its own tech — so far ap­plied in can­cer but al­so has po­ten­tial in di­a­betes — tem­po­rary dis­rupts the cell mem­brane by squeez­ing the cell, thus cre­at­ing a brief win­dow for tar­get ma­te­ri­als such as anti­gens to en­ter.

FDA re­jects Ac­er's rare dis­ease drug, asks for new tri­al — shares crater

Ac­er Ther­a­peu­tics’ bid to re­pur­pose celipro­lol — a be­ta-block­er on the mar­ket for hy­per­ten­sion — as a treat­ment for a rare, in­her­it­ed con­nec­tive tis­sue dis­or­der has hit a se­vere set­back. The New­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts-based com­pa­ny on Tues­day said the FDA re­ject­ed the drug and has asked for an­oth­er clin­i­cal tri­al.

The com­pa­ny’s shares $AC­ER cratered near­ly 77% to $4.47 in Tues­day morn­ing trad­ing.

Tasly Bio­phar­ma pitch­es long-await­ed IPO — will it trig­ger an­oth­er $1B gold rush on HKEX?

In the run up to the Hong Kong stock ex­change’s an­tic­i­pat­ed rule change — open­ing the door for Chi­nese pre-rev­enue biotechs to go pub­lic clos­er to home — more than a year ago, Tasly Bio­phar­ma was one of the big play­ers whose ru­mored in­ter­est helped stoke en­thu­si­asm for the new list­ing venue. The com­pa­ny has since kept the drum­roll rum­bling in the back­ground, rais­ing a pre-IPO round and con­vinc­ing part­ner Trans­gene to swap own­er­ship in a joint ven­ture for eq­ui­ty. Now the oth­er shoe has fi­nal­ly dropped as ex­ecs out­line plans for a pipeline dom­i­nat­ed by car­dio­vas­cu­lar drugs.