The $102B club: The top 15 R&D spenders in the glob­al bio­phar­ma busi­ness — 2019 edi­tion

Over the past few years, the deluge of capital into biotech has helped lead to a dramatic shift in focus on new drug approvals, as startups are now able to raise enough cash to get through a pivotal and onto the market. But the top 15 players still account for $102 billion in spending, and their successes and failures continue to determine just how productive the industry is.

Recently we’ve seen a number of new R&D chiefs take their places at the Big 15, either setting the stage for a more focused R&D strategy — often playing more heavily in oncology. That’s true for AstraZeneca, which has had some landmark successes, and GSK, which is in search of its own turnaround in pharma R&D. HIV and vaccines are separate from that group, now led by Hal Barron.

I’ve made a point of watching their track record every year for more than a decade now. What follows is intended as a broad gauge of their activity. You don’t have to have a lot of major successes to score a winning record here, but it’s virtually impossible without a blockbuster or three in the pipeline.

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Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Jude Samulski, Marianne De Backer

Bay­er buys a biotech ‘race horse’ with a $4B deal — $2B in cash — aimed at go­ing big in­to gene ther­a­py

In the latest sign that Big Pharma wants a leading place in the push to develop a new generation of cell and gene therapies, Bayer is stepping up today with a $2 billion cash deal to buy out one of the fast-moving pioneers in the field, while adding up to $2 billion more in milestones if the new pharma subsidiary can deliver the goods.

As part of a continuing series of deals engineered by Bayer BD chief Marianne De Backer, the pharma player has snapped up Asklepios, more commonly referred to in more casual fashion as AskBio. And they are paying top dollar for a Research Triangle Park-based company that raised $225 million a little more than a year ago to back the brainchild of Jude Samulski, the gene therapy pioneer out of the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center.

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Christian Rommel (via Roche)

Bay­er fol­lows R&D deal spree by raid­ing Roche's can­cer group for its new re­search chief

The day after Bayer signed off on a $4 billion deal designed to put the company among the leaders in gene therapy development, the pharma giant has recruited a new chief for its R&D division. And they opted for an expert in the cancer field.

Christian Rommel, Roche’s head of discovery and early-stage oncology development, has been tapped to take over the job. Joerg Moeller, who got the top research post after early- and late-stage development roles were combined 2 years ago, is hitting the exit “to pursue other career opportunities.”

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Albert Bourla, AP

UP­DAT­ED: Where's the Pfiz­er ef­fi­ca­cy read­out? CEO Bourla says 'soon,' but you're go­ing to have to wait for it

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had promised repeatedly that the pharma giant would know if its leading Covid-19 vaccine is effective by the end of this month — now just a few days away.

Instead, the company reported early Tuesday that it has yet to conduct any interim efficacy analyses. And it won’t now until sometime next month.

The news was included in a slide for their Q3 report.

In the morning Q3 call with analysts, Bourla says that they expect efficacy data “soon,” but noted that they wouldn’t be able to say anything until all the administrative work was done on the interim, which would take about a week. And he added that Pfizer isn’t going to say anything else about that hot topic until they have the data in hand.

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Charles Baum, Mirati CEO

UP­DAT­ED: Mi­rati plots a march to the FDA for its KRAS G12C drug, breath­ing down Am­gen’s neck with bet­ter da­ta

Mirati Therapeutics $MRTX took another closely-watched step toward a now clearly defined goal to file for an approval for its KRAS G12C cancer drug adagrasib (MRTX849), scoring a higher response rate than the last readout from the class-leading rival at Amgen but still leaving open a raft of important questions about its future.

Following a snapshot of the first handful of responses, where the drug scored a tumor response in 3 of 5 patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the response rate has now slid to 45% among a pooled group of 51 early-stage and Phase II patients, 43% — 6 of 14 — when looking solely at the Phase I/Ib. Those 14 patients had a median treatment duration of 8.2 months, with half still on therapy and 5 of 6 responders still in response.

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No­var­tis CEO Vas Narasimhan signs off on a $231M deal to try some­thing new in the R&D fight against SARS-CoV-2

Patrick Amstutz was baptized by pandemic fire early on.

He and colleagues attended the notorious Cowen conference in early March that included some of the top Biogen execs who helped trigger a superspreader event in Boston. Heading back to his post as CEO of Molecular Partners in Switzerland, the outbreak was sweeping through Italy, triggering near panic in some quarters and creeping into the voices of people he knew, including one friend on the Italian side of the country.

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Three years in­to a PhI­II pro­gram for a failed Duchenne MD drug, Cataba­sis hauls down the flag and ad­mits de­feat

Three years ago, Catabasis CEO Jill Milne and the crew insisted they had found good reason for great cheer once they plumbed the data from their failed study for the Duchenne MD drug edasalonexent. Plunging into the extended open-label data, they said, you could find solid evidence of efficacy. And that justified a try in Phase III.

But they were wrong.

Monday, after the bell, the little biotech acknowledged that their pivotal attempt following the mid-stage flop was another failure. The primary, change in baseline on the North Star Ambulatory Assessment, and the secondary on timed function tests both came up short of statistical significance.

Ul­tragenyx slams the brakes on rare dis­ease study af­ter all 5 pa­tients are hit with a se­ri­ous set­back

Ultragenyx $RARE and its partners at GeneTx have been forced to halt early-stage study for a drug to treat rare cases of Angelman syndrome after all 5 of the patients being treated for the first time experienced a severe adverse event at the highest dose.

The patients in the study experienced “lower extremity weakness believed to be related to local inflammation due to GTX-102,” triggering a red light on dosing and enrollment.

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Gary Glick, Keith Flaherty

What can a biotech en­tre­pre­neur and a top sci­en­tist come up with on a cou­ple of shared flights? Well...

Just weeks before the pandemic hit the states, Gary Glick and Keith Flaherty had a chance to spend 12 hours together, talking craft and trade on board shared flights as they headed to and from a board meeting together.

It may have been the most fruitful 12 hours of Glick’s productive life. They certainly found plenty to talk about.

Glick, a well known biotech entrepreneur and inflammatory specialist, had bumped up to executive chair at IFM Therapeutics just weeks before, after running through a slate of sizable deals with some major pharma players like Novartis.