The top 10 sto­ries from End­points News in 2018

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.

No­var­tis sac­ri­fices its top at­tor­ney in an at­tempt to quell clam­or over $1.2M in Co­hen pay­ments — while ex-CEO Jimenez strug­gles to ex­plain

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.

Phar­ma’s bro­ken busi­ness mod­el: An in­dus­try on the brink of ter­mi­nal de­cline

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.

Pfiz­er is ax­ing its neu­ro­sciences di­vi­sion, lay­ing off 300 and dis­card­ing new drugs

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. 

CRISPR pi­o­neer Feng Zhang co-founds a ‘lim­it­less’ biotech up­start with big plans for speed­ing new drug de­vel­op­ment

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.

No­var­tis joins the Big Phar­ma ex­o­dus out of an­tibi­otics, dump­ing re­search, cut­ting 140 and out-li­cens­ing pro­grams

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. 

Ax­o­vant: That pos­i­tive p-val­ue we re­port­ed yes­ter­day? Um, we screwed that up too

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. 

Stormy Daniels’ lawyer: No­var­tis made $400K in ‘sus­pi­cious’ pay­ments to Trump at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen

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.

Mer­ck’s Keytru­da com­bo wows again, ac­ing PhI­II over­all sur­vival goal for lung can­cer ear­ly

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.

Back­ers of Tes­la and SpaceX fund 29-year-old Al­ice Zhang’s AI-pow­ered neu­ro­science start­up

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.

The un­der-40s: How does the next gen­er­a­tion of bio­phar­ma ex­ec­u­tives view the fu­ture?


Im­age: SHUT­TER­STOCK

Scott Gottlieb, AP Images

Scott Got­tlieb is once again join­ing a team that en­joyed good times at the FDA un­der his high-en­er­gy stint at the helm

Right after jumping on Michael Milken’s FasterCures board on Monday, the newly departed FDA commissioner is back today with news about another life sciences board post that gives him a ringside chair to cheer on a lead player in the real-world evidence movement — one with very close ties to the FDA.

Aetion is reporting this morning that Gottlieb is joining their board, a group that includes Mohamad Makhzoumi, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, where Gottlieb returned after stepping out of his role at the FDA 2 years after he started.

Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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San Diego cou­ple charged with steal­ing trade se­crets, open­ing Chi­nese biotech as DOJ crack­down con­tin­ues

A San Diego couple has been charged with stealing trade secrets from a US hospital and opening a business based off those secrets in China as the controversial industry-wide crackdown on alleged corporate espionage continues. On the same day, the Department of Justice announced they had arrested Beijing representative Zhongsan Liu for allegedly trying to obtain research visas for government recruiters.

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Deborah Dunsire. Lundbeck

UP­DAT­ED: Deb­o­rah Dun­sire is pay­ing $2B for a chance to leap di­rect­ly in­to a block­buster show­down with a few of the world's biggest phar­ma gi­ants

A year after taking the reins as CEO of Lundbeck, Deborah Dunsire is making a bold bid to beef up the Danish biotech’s portfolio of drugs in what will likely be a direct leap into an intense rivalry with a group of giants now carving up a growing market for new migraine drugs.

Bright and early European time Monday morning the company announced that it will pay up to about $2 billion to buy Alder, a little biotech that is far along the path in developing a quarterly IV formulation of a CGRP drug aimed at cutting back the number of crippling migraines patients experience each month. In a followup call, Dunsire also noted that the company will likely need 200 to 250 reps for this marketing task on both sides of the Atlantic. And analysts were quick to note that the dealmaking at Lundbeck isn’t done, with another $2 billion to $3 billion available for more deals to beef up the pipeline.

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Tower Bridge in London [Shutterstock]

#UK­BIO19: Join GSK’s Hal Bar­ron and a group of top biotech ex­ecs for our 2nd an­nu­al biotech sum­mit in Lon­don

Over the past 10 years I’ve made a point of getting to know the Golden Triangle and the special role the UK biopharma industry plays there in drug development. The concentration of world class research institutes, some of the most accomplished scientists I’ve ever seen at work and a rising tide of global investment cash leaves an impression that there’s much, much more to come as biotech hubs are birthed and nurtured.

UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen pulls the plug on prized IPF drug from $562M+ Stromedix buy­out

One of Biogen’s attempts to branch out has flopped as the biotech scraps a mid-stage program for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

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Warts for the win: Aclar­is' lead drug clears piv­otal study

Aclaris Therapeutics has found a way to get rid of the warts and all.

The company — which earlier this month decided to focus on its arsenal of kinase inhibitors — on Monday unveiled positive data from a pivotal study testing its lead experimental drug for use in common warts.

The drug, A-101, was tested in a 502-patient study called THWART-2 — patients enrolled had one to six warts before qualifying for the trial. Patients either self-administered A-101 topical solution or a vehicle twice a week over a two-month period. A higher proportion of patients on the drug (a potent hydrogen peroxide topical solution) saw their warts disappear at day 60, versus the vehicle (p<0.0001) — meeting the main goal of the study.  Each secondary endpoint also emerged in favor of A-101, the company said.

Charles Nichols, LSU School of Medicine

Could psy­che­delics tack­le the obe­si­ty cri­sis? A long­time re­searcher in the field says his lat­est mouse study sug­gests po­ten­tial

Psychedelics have experienced a renaissance in recent years amid a torrent of preclinical and clinical research suggesting it might provide a path to treat mood disorders conventional remedies have only scraped at. Now a preclinical trial from a young biotech suggests at least one psychedelic compound has effects beyond the mind, and — if you believe the still very, very early hype — could provide the first single remedy for some of the main complications of obesity.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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Ac­celeron drops a de­vel­op­ment pro­gram as #2 drug fails to spark func­tion­al ben­e­fits in pa­tients with a rare neu­ro­mus­cu­lar ail­ment

Acceleron is scrapping a muscular dystrophy development program underway for its number 2 drug in the pipeline after pouring over some failed mid-stage secondary data.

Gone is the ACE-083 project in patients with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy. Their drug hit the primary endpoint on building muscle but flopped on key secondaries for functional improvements in patients, which execs felt was vital to the drug’s success.