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Can Gwen Ifill’s Death Spur Cancer Innovation?

Gwen Ifill, the pioneering journalist who spent three decades covering government and national politics for the Washington Post, New York Times, PBS, and others, died yesterday of endometrial cancer—She was 61.

One of the first African American women to anchor a major political talk show, Ifill was an ever-authoritative, charming, and deeply informed moderator on PBS’s Washington Week and, later, NewsHour, where she served as co-anchor. “She was one of the best human beings I ever worked with,” remembers Alan Murray, Time Inc.’s chief content officer and my boss at Fortune, who was often one of Ifill’s guests at the “Washington Week” roundtable. “She was smart, considerate, focused—an absolute joy to work with. There are people who have TV personas. Ifill didn’t,” he says. “She was that wonderful.”

As much as Ifill’s life was inspirational, though, her death is a clarion call for medical and public health innovators. Just over 60,000 cases of uterine cancer will be diagnosed this year, of which roughly nine in 10 will begin in cells of the endometrium—the lining of the uterus. (Cancers of the uterine cervix are counted separately.) Incidence rates in American women, and in other developed countries, have been increasing in recent years—with the rate of new cases in those under age 50 climbing by 1.3% a year since 1988.

On the whole, it’s one of the more treatable cancers—with five-year survival rates at 83%. But there are two catches with that: the first is that the relatively high survival rate masks the fact that an estimated 10,470 women will die of the disease in 2016—yes, a staggeringly high number. And the second is that survival rates in African American women are—as they are in so many cancers—significantly lower than they are for whites: with 66% of black women surviving five years from diagnosis versus 85% of white women.

Cases of endometrial cancers are caught, as a rule, haphazardly—when women experience unusual spotting or bleeding and go to the doctor. There is no simple blood test, for example, that can detect these cancers early on when they may be more treatable.

One recent study suggests that certain proteins that activate other proteins (called proprotein convertases) may be sharply elevated in women across all stages of endometrial cancer, and may be detectable through a biochemical test—though that test, as of now, relies on getting fluid directly from the uterine cavity, and so is likely to be too invasive for widespread use. And last month, in another sign of progress, a research team at Yale reported finding a group of genetic mutations that are common to one of the deadliest subtypes of endometrial cancer, tumors known as carcinosarcomas. That, too, may offer an early warning one day.

But the slow pace of discovery here offers an opportunity for new methods of detection. I’ll report on some of those in future essays. For now, here’s the news from Sy.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

The FDA has approved a "smart" defibrillator. Medtronic announced Monday that the Food and Drug Administration has approved its next-gen defibrillator, which can automatically adjust pacing for patients who have abnormal heart rhythms by using a special algorithm. That's important for heart failure patients who have atrial fibrillation, since most standard defibrillators can only assess whether or not a pulse has been successfully sent to the heart and not how effectively it's helping the heart actually beat. Earlier this year, the device giant won an FDA green light for an artificial pancreas device for patients with type 1 diabetes. (Fortune)

Roche goes in on immuno-oncology research with $100 million investment. Cancer immunotherapy may be the single hottest research field in biopharma, with major players ranging from Merck to Bristol-Myers Squibb to Roche all putting big investments into the space. The latter firm was a relatively late entrant into the market with its PD-L1 inhibitor Tecentriq, which Roche officials have described as the backbone of its immuno-oncology ambitions. Now, the firm is ramping up its collaborations with a network of 21 academic institutes who will pool data to hasten the early-stage research process on which immunotherapies are actually effective in battling tumors. "We believe the fastest way to advance progress against cancer is through collaboration, and consistent with our values, the goal of imCORE is to facilitate access to new technologies and emerging data among the top researchers around the world," said Roche CMO Dr. Sandra Horning in a statement. (FierceBiotech)

This gene therapy pioneer is slashing jobs and R&D. UniQure made history in 2012 as the first company in the world to get a gene therapy to the market (Glybera, meant to treat the super rare disorder lipoprotein lipase deficiency). But it's been slammed with a host of problems ever since. First, the treatment itself is exorbitantly expensive at more than $1 million per round of treatment. And its effectiveness hasn't really been robustly confirmed, leading to physician skepticism about offering such a pricey therapy to patients. The market flop is now leading UniQure to drop a number of investigational therapies (and a quarter of its workforce) for diseases like Parkinson's. The biotech hopes the reorganization will save enough money that it can concentrate on more promising prospects, such as a collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb on cardiovascular diseases. (Endpoints)

INDICATIONS

Medicare reveals the biggest drug price hikers of 2015. Medicare, America's public health program for the elderly, released extensive data on Monday outlining which drugs cost it the most money and saw the most significant price hikes in 2015. The biggest hikes came from companies like Pfizer and Valeant—in fact, Pfizer's extremely popular pain relief medication Lyrics jumped 19% in price from 2014 to 2015, which had an outsize effect on Medicare spending due to the drug's ubiquitous use. Other treatments with lower sales volume saw more significant spikes, such as Valeant's Glumetza (used to treat diabetes), whose price went up 381%. Overall, Medicare spent to most money on Gilead's hepatitis C cure Harvoni and Sanofi's insulin Lantus ($7.03 billion and $4.4 billion, respectively). The companies argue that judging by list prices alone is misleading since government programs eventually receive discounts on the medicines. (Wall Street Journal)

AbbVie's all-encompassing hep C drug looks like a winner. AbbVie revealed some stellar data over the weekend for its combination therapy to treat all major strains of hepatitis C, spelling continued troubles for Gilead. The experimental combo was effective after just eight weeks of treatment, with a staggering 97.5% of patients maintaining a viral response. That could give AbbVie a leg up on Gilead's own pan-genotype HCV therapy Epclusa, which was approved in June. Gilead's flagship hep C franchise has been struggling under the weight of pricing pressures and increasing number of competitors on the market. (BioPharma Dive, Fortune)

Gilead's liver drug hopeful continues to be a mixed bag. A number of biopharma companies have been making bold bets on experimental drugs to treat NASH, a fatty liver disease that can eventually lead to cirrhosis and doesn't involve alcohol intake. But much of the clinical trial data on these therapies have been mixed bags so far, and the trend is continuing with Gilead's GS-4997, or selonsertib. The biotech giant announced data that can be seen in a glass half full, glass half empty light when it comes to treating liver fibrosis and NASH; for instance, 20% of patients taking the drug in a phase 2 study experienced at least 15% reduction in liver stiffness. The problem for Gilead right now is that it needs a big, game-changing winner along the lines of its historic hep C cures Sovaldi and Harvoni. As sales of those drugs struggle against more competitors, Gilead has attempted to shore up research into other therapeutic spaces, but it's still unclear when the company will land a major breakthrough. (Endpoints)

THE BIG PICTURE

Germany could ramp up its drug price controls even more. It's no secret that European nations have significantly more stringent policies than the U.S. does when it comes to drug prices. And one of the strictest countries on the issue, Germany, may be preparing to double down even more. Lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would only allow companies to set their own prices for drugs during their first year on the market until they reach 250 million euro in sales, after which drug price controls would take effect. Unsurprisingly, biopharma companies are slamming the proposal, warning that it will wind up restricting patients' access to important medications. (Bloomberg)

Dementia is now the number one killer in England and Wales. The U.K.'s Office of National Statistics (ONS) has disclosed a sobering new statistic: for the first time, Alzheimer's and dementia have overtaken heart disease as the biggest cause of death in England and Wales. Ischemic heart disease made up 11.5% of 2015's 529,655 recorded deaths in the region, while dementia made up 11.6% of the deaths. This trend is likely to continue as the global population begins to live longer and longer lives; and one major problem is the total lack of effective medicines for dementia."Thanks to better treatments and prevention programs, deaths from many other serious conditions have been steadily dropping: now we must do the same for dementia," said Hilary Evans of the Alzheimer's Research U.K. in a statement. (PharmaTimes)

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