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

In a sec­ond big set­back for Covid-19 an­ti­body treat­ment hopes, Re­gen­eron halts en­roll­ment for more se­vere pa­tients

Regeneron has just delivered more bad news for the hope that neutralizing antibodies could be used to treat patients with more severe forms of Covid-19.

The New York biotech said today that an independent monitoring committee recommended halting enrollment of patients who need high-flow oxygen or mechanical ventilation in one of the trials on their antibody cocktail, after finding “a potential safety signal” and “an unfavorable risk/benefit profile.” The news comes a week after the NIH scrapped a trial of Eli Lilly’s Covid-19 antibody after finding it was having little effect on an initial cohort of hospitalized patients.

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Daphne Koller, Getty

Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

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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George Golumbeski (L) and Faheem Hasnain

George Golumbes­ki and Fa­heem Has­nain team up with Ver­tex Ven­tures HC in man­ag­ing $320M of biotech cash

Two longtime biotech veterans are joining a multibillion dollar VC firm in order to help steer its latest fund.

George Golumbeski and Faheem Hasnain have signed on to Vertex Ventures HC as executive advisors, the company announced Thursday, and will assist with their depth of experience in managing $320 million of capital. Both have had previous working relationships with managing partners Carolyn Ng and Lori Hu, which evolved “organically” to get to this point, Ng said.

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Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

A p-val­ue of 0.38? NE­JM re­sults raise new ques­tions for Eli Lil­ly's vaunt­ed Covid an­ti­body

Generally, a p-value of 0.38 means your drug failed and by a fair margin. Depending on the company, the compound and the trial, it might mean the end of the program. It could trigger layoffs.

For Eli Lilly, though, it was part of the key endpoint on a trial that landed them a $1.2 billion deal with the US government to supply up to nearly 1 million Covid-19 antibodies.

So what does one make of that? Was the endpoint not so important, as Lilly maintains? Or did the US government promise a princely sum for a pedestrian drug?

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As­traZeneca sells off heart fail­ure and hy­per­ten­sion drugs to Chep­lapharm for $400M

Out with the old and in with the new: AstraZeneca is selling off two heart failure and hypertension drugs to Germany-based Cheplapharm, bagging $400 million and making way for development in other areas.

Cheplapharm paid $200 million for the European rights to Atacand (candesartan cilexetil) and Atacand Plus (candesartan cilexetil and hydrochlorothiazide) back in 2018. They’re now doubling that amount for commercial control in more than 70 countries.

News brief­ing: Ax­o­vant faces months of de­lay on lead Parkin­son's gene ther­a­py; Chi­nese CAR-T biotech nabs $100M

One of Axovant’s top gene therapy prospects for its second act is hitting a roadblock that could push its clinical timelines back by almost a year.

In an update, the biotech said it was informed about delays in CMC data and third-part fill-finish issues around mid-October by its manufacturing partner, Oxford Biomedica. Axovant has been developing a suspension-based process for the Parkinson’s drug; with that taking longer than expected, it now believes “it is unlikely that its planned randomized, sham-controlled trial of AXO-Lenti-PD will enroll patients by the end of calendar year 2021.”

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO (Andreas Arnold/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Flush with $486M con­tract, As­traZeneca signs Lon­za up to man­u­fac­ture an­ti­bod­ies; BioN­Tech's Ugur Sahin ex­pects vac­cine da­ta 'in a fort­night'

Days after scoring a $486 million BARDA contract to develop and manufacture its long-acting antibody combo for Covid-19, AstraZeneca has tapped Lonza to produce the drug substance at its mid-scale facility in Portsmouth, NH.

The drug, dubbed AZD7442, puts together two antibodies, first discovered by scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, derived from convalescent patients who recovered from a SARS-CoV-2 infection. AstraZeneca licensed them in June and has since further engineered them with half-life extension and reduced Fc receptor binding.

CEO Kenji Yasukawa (Astellas)

In ear­ly blow to Ken­ji Ya­sukawa's R&D re­vamp, Astel­las drops out of the TIG­IT race, cit­ing PhI fail­ure

Just after AstraZeneca jumped into the TIGIT race, Astellas quietly disclosed that it was leaving, dropping out of a hunt for an immunotherapy approach that has shown tantalizing promise but remains largely unproven.

Astellas revealed in their second quarter earnings today that they’ve ended development of the anti-TIGIT antibody they acquired in their up to $400 million buyout of Potenza in 2018. The Japanese pharma had been testing it in combination with Keytruda in a 300-person Phase I study on patients with advanced solid tumors. A smaller study testing the antibody alone was completed, 2 years ahead of schedule, in July.

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