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Big Pharma Might Be Getting an Early Christmas Present

Good morning, readers.

This is Sy taking over for Cliff today. He's currently in Rome for the Fortune and Time Global Forum, where he'll be discussing public health with 100 CEOs and world leaders—including Dr. Raj Panjabi, who just won the $1 million 2017 TED Prize for his work in public health. See my write-up below for more details.

We've got plenty to discuss over on this continent, too—on the legislative, clinical, and business sides alike. Just last night, Congress took a big step towards passing the pharma-backed 21st Century Cures Act, which is the most far-reaching healthcare reform bill since Obamacare and carries major implications for drug approvals, the U.S. mental health system, and scientific research; a biotech firm announced extremely promising initial trial results for a type of next-gen cancer therapy which has faced some recent disappointments; and a certain supercomputer is teaming up with an American pharma giant to advance cancer immunotherapy.

Read on for the day's news.

Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

IBM Watson and Pfizer are teaming up to develop cancer immunotherapies. IBM's Watson Health unit is already harnessing the power of its supercomputer to help slash medical errors and improve the way that doctors read x-rays and brain scans. And now, the company's announced that pharma giant Pfizer will be using Watson to identify novel new cancer immunotherapy drugs, test out medicine combinations that might be more effective against certain types of cancers (and for certain types of people), and generally sift through the mountains of cancer research data that is released every year. The partnership is one of practicality—it is physically impossible for researchers, even those who have the kind of resources that Pfizer has, to keep up with all the medical and clinical literature that comes out in the cancer space. And that's where having a supercomputer having your back can go a long way. (Fortune)

Bluebird Bio is soaring over early results for its next-gen experimental cancer drug. The chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) field hit a buzz saw earlier this month when Juno Therapeutics issued a voluntary clinical hold on one of its lead drug candidates following patient deaths. But the hot new technology—which involves extracting patients' immune T-cells, re-engineering them to attack cancerous tumors, and then re-inserting them into patients' bodies—got a boost Wednesday evening when Bluebird Bio and Celgene reported promising early results for Bluebird's experimental bb2121, which is being tested as a treatment for the rare blood cancer multiple myeloma. The companies announced that seven of nine patients being evaluated in the study responded positively to the therapy in one way or another, and that those who hadn't responded were receiving low doses. And—most significantly for a CAR-T drug—Bluebird didn't witness serious side effects. The results are obvious still very preliminary. But Bluebird shares spike 15% in early Thursday trading regardless.

Health Catalyst has launched an open source machine learning tool. Health tech firm Health Catalyst has unveiled a new open source software on the website Healthcare.ai which will allow health care providers to use the data analytics technology for free. The predictive analytics tool can assist hospitals and other interested parties sift through massive amounts of data to identify (and predict) key trends. "We are not just being altruistic here," said Dale Sanders, Health Catalyst executive vice president, in an interview with Healthcare IT News. "By submitting our tools and algorithms to the open source community, we and our clients will benefit from the collective intelligence that exists beyond our team of data scientists." (Healthcare IT News)

INDICATIONS

Pharma may finally be getting its wish on 21st Century Cures. The House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved the 21st Century Cures Act, a massive health care reform bill that's been on big pharma's wishlist for nearly three years. The legislation passed in a 392-26 vote despite warnings from critics like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that it amounted to a corporate giveaway to drug makers that would weaken regulatory standards. 21st Century Cures aims to speed up the drug and device approval process through changes to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); but while big pharma became a political albatross during the 2016 presidential campaign, the latest version of the bill contained popular initiatives such as nearly $5 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health; mental health care reforms to help identify available psychiatric beds; and money for fighting the opioid epidemic. The bill will head to the Senate for consideration next week and, if ultimately passed, is likely to be signed by President Barack Obama. (Fortune)

Eli Lilly is headed for job cuts in the wake of its Alzheimer's drug debacle. Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly faced a devastating setback with the late-stage failure of its Alzheimer's drug hopeful solanezumab. And that failure is already breeding consequences. Lilly, which had put massive financial investments into developing the drug, is forecasting job cuts as one of the final acts of outgoing CEO John Lechleiter's tenure. "The [solanezumab] results will cause us to reevaluate staffing decisions made in anticipation of positive results," Lilly spokeswoman Nicole Hebert told the Indianapolis Star. "Affected employees will learn more as decisions are made." For now, the total number of potential job cuts are unknown. (Endpoints)

THE BIG PICTURE

This man just won a $1 million TED prize for his work in public health. Dr. Raj Panjabi has won the 2017 TED Prize for his work in global health. The prize—a $1 million "wish" that Panjabi will announce at TED2017 next year—was awarded based on Panjabi's extensive work training community health workers in regions like rural Liberia through his group Last Mile Health. The organization's mission is to create a bridge to a primary care health system in severely underdeveloped areas by recruiting (and employing) the very people who live in those communities and teaching them how to administer basic medical services like vaccine administration and community health monitoring. Last Mile Health even helped the government of Liberia during the deadly Ebola outbreak. Cliff will be interviewing Dr. Panjabi about his work tomorrow at the Fortune and Time Global Forum in Rome. (TED)

The 3 best health care and pharma stocks for 2017—no matter what happens to Obamacare. My colleague Jen Wieczner has named a trio of health care stocks that are likely to be impervious to whatever changes await Obamacare under a prospective Trump administration: the biotech giant Celgene; insurance titan UnitedHealth Group; and Varian Medical Systems, which creates advanced radiotherapy devices to treat cancer. These companies aren't necessarily dependent on Obamacare's individual insurance marketplace customers (or the U.S. market in general) for much of their revenues, meaning they can continue to grow no matter the shifting trends in American health markets. (Fortune)

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