We’ll end this year with a look back at the 10 stories our audience found most interesting, based on web traffic. It’s always fascinated me when one of our stories gets a viral boost. This year we had a world-class scandal that factored in, several moves by Big Pharma to exit key research arenas and some up-and-coming industry players who made the kind of news that attracted widespread attention.
One steady theme: Readers are interested in people now more than money. Yes, what bleeds still often leads, and there are plenty of things that are in desperate shape in this industry. But a come-from-behind success story will attract a blockbuster crowd, too.
The top 10 list this year is particularly interesting to me because we’ve seen a rising tide of activity in biopharma as new companies spring up and go public faster than ever before. There’s just a lot more R&D-related news these days, so getting to the top is harder.
And without more ado, here’s the top 10.
1 Novartis sacrifices its top attorney in an attempt to quell clamor over $1.2M in Cohen payments — while ex-CEO Jimenez struggles to explain
It’s not often that the headlines at Endpoints News reflect the hurley burley of 24/7 cable news coverage. But with Donald Trump in the White House, anything is possible. So it was as Novartis $NVS grappled with a global uproar that followed the revelation that it had quietly paid Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen more than a million dollars — funneled into the same business account that covered money paid out to porn actress Stormy Daniels following her alleged affair with the president. Hush money she called it. Now Cohen is going to jail for the payouts while Novartis and ex-CEO Joe Jimenez like to call this one over and done with. For Novartis, which has been mired in a series of ethics scandals, the Cohen uproar has to mark a low point. And it definitely left a permanent mark.
2 Pharma’s broken business model: An industry on the brink of terminal decline
Kelvin Stott put his finger right on one of the sorest spots in the industry with this lengthy contributed column. Big Pharma spends billions on R&D but is steadily losing the war on innovation. Returns from their investments have been shrinking for years. And Stott came up with his own math to highlight what he called a drift to the brink of terminal decline. Ironically, the R&D crisis is reaching the brink at a time the majors are under tremendous pressure to cap prices, removing the annual hikes that have fueled steadily rising revenue numbers for many. They will now be forced to rely on their own ability to create a blockbuster pipeline, or buy one, because these numbers from Stott don’t work in the long run.
3 Pfizer is axing its neurosciences division, laying off 300 and discarding new drugs
None of the Big Pharma’s are ever quite finished with realigning their core R&D focuses, as we’ve seen recently at GlaxoSmithKline. But after years of heavy investments with nothing to show for it, Pfizer $PFE still managed to shock everyone with its abrupt exit out of neurosciences. And true to form, the pharma giant simply took out the ax and cut the division out. Cancer has been a much more lucrative arena for Pfizer. Maybe they will get back into neuro some day, when people actually figure out how to make new drugs for the field. In the meantime, their departure underscores the harsh realities of R&D. At some point, you have to put up or stop doing the work.
4 CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang co-founds a ‘limitless’ biotech upstart with big plans for speeding new drug development
Just about any story on CRISPR technology could get eyeballs this year. The promise of gene editing as a new tool for tackling disease has fascinated everyone in and outside the industry for years. And when one of the field’s founders, the Broad’s Feng Zhang, backs a startup, you can expect the news will turn heads. The money involved was relatively small, only $15.6 million. But people are more important than money in attracting an audience. Zhang has been at the center of a bitter patent dispute involving the pioneers in this field. But he always maintained that the field was still in its infancy, with much more work to be done refining and improving the technology. You can expect more headlines from Zhang in the year ahead.
5 Novartis joins the Big Pharma exodus out of antibiotics, dumping research, cutting 140 and out-licensing programs
Think neuro is tough? Try making commercial sense out of antibiotics. The R&D work is high risk and the market, dominated by cheap generics, looks extremely low margin. That’s not the kind of profile that Big Pharma ever enjoyed. One of the big surprises here is that Novartis was still directly engaged in the research work, while most of the majors had bowed out long ago. Public health officials globally have been sounding the alarm about drug-resistant pathogens, raising a hue and cry for new antibiotics. But until the money starts to look attractive, there won’t be nearly enough R&D work done to avert a growing threat. Something needs to change, but it never does.
6 Axovant: That positive p-value we reported yesterday? Um, we screwed that up too
Axovant $AXON had been trying to find a silver lining around the time that its Alzheimer’s drug blew up in Phase III when they stumbled — badly — on this monumental screwup. Whoever did the numbers for this particular p-value failed to double check the math, and a company that already had egg on its face had to awkwardly walk it back a day later. Built by Vivek Ramaswamy and then helmed by David Hung, Axovant ultimately had to level the programs for its first two drugs and start all over again as a gene therapy company under new management. But this is the kind of cautionary tale that should inspire everyone to make absolutely certain not to get sloppy with data. Some things really are inexcusable.
7 Stormy Daniels’ lawyer: Novartis made $400K in ‘suspicious’ payments to Trump attorney Michael Cohen
This was the story that got me started on the role Novartis had to play in the epic Stormy Daniels saga. Of course, the money was bigger than initially reported, and Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan hunkered down in Basel to wait out the storm as company execs pointed the finger at the recently departed Joe Jimenez for his role in making it happen. Novartis insisted the contact with Cohen was dramatically short lived, but a probe by Senate Democrats reached a different conclusion. Scandals tend to linger in pharmaland long after the headlines are forgotten. Here’s another one.
8 Merck’s Keytruda combo wows again, acing PhIII overall survival goal for lung cancer early
Here’s another top story of the year that underscores a major theme for the year. After watching Bristol-Myers Squibb $BMY take a commanding lead on the PD-1 front, Merck’s R&D team $MRK under Roger Perlmutter executed a massive R&D effort to catch up. Their prime strategy was a combination of Keytruda with chemo, while others went with CTLA-4. Chemo won and over the course of 2018 Merck caught up and then passed Bristol-Myers as the leader in marketing checkpoints for non-small cell lung cancer. Merck now has hundreds of trials underway to help maintain its momentum. Bristol-Myers may have won the first battle, but now the war is going Merck’s way.
9 Backers of Tesla and SpaceX fund 29-year-old Alice Zhang’s AI-powered neuroscience startup
In an industry that heaps praise on the elder statesmen, it’s the up-and-comers like Alice Zhang — just like Feng Zhang — that readers gravitate toward the most. A new name and a new technology like AI is all but assured wide attention. There are no sure things in biopharma, of course, and new technologies commonly take years before they truly reveal their potential for disruption. But the California dreamers are getting their shot.
10 The under-40s: How does the next generation of biopharma executives view the future?
Just to drive that point about new faces and new technology home for you, our final piece for this year’s top 10 featured some of the most prominent younger execs on the way up the ladder in biopharma. You can see for yourself who made the first list. We’ve already begun to plan for our second look in 2019, so be sure to keep a lookout when we ask for nominations. People care. It’s important.
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