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Brainstorm Health Daily: June 6, 2017

Greetings, readers. This is Sy.

Today is the last day of the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago. The yearly confab is the biggest cancer conference in the world, attracting more than 30,000 oncology researchers, biopharma executives, investors, and public health experts.

ASCO presents tiny biotechs and drug giants alike an opportunity to present their latest clinical trial data for both old and experimental drugs. There are also forums dedicated to policy issues such as drug pricing and medical standards—last year, former Vice President Joe Biden announced a federal Genomic Data Commons to expedite cancer research during a keynote address.

Here are some of the key stories to come out of this year’s meeting.

  • Smaller companies grab the spotlight with impressive early results. Several of the biggest headlines to come out of ASCO 2017 involve relatively small companies like Stamford, CT-based Loxo Oncology and China’s Nanjing Legend Biotech. The former saw its stock price soar nearly 50% after unveiling that its lead experimental drug, larotrectinib, produced a response in 76% of patients with a specific kind of genetic marker in a mid-stage trial. That means that the drug could prove effective in a variety of cancers so long as patients have that marker. Nanjing Legend, meanwhile, presented early data on a new kind of cancer treatment (CAR-T, which involves re-engineering patients’ immune cells to fight blood cancers) that could help pit the company against drug giants like Novartis and biotechs like Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics which are also working in the field. Nanjing’s product targets a different kind of biomarker and is being tested in multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.
  • Pfizer’s $14 billion Medivation deal comes under scrutiny. Pfizer was considered a major winner when it snapped up cancer biotech Medivation for $14 billion last summer. That offer (a 20% premium over the firm’s market value at the time) came after a frenzy of drug makers tried to land the firm and its prostate cancer treatment Xtandi, most notably France’s Sanofi. But new data presented at ASCO has some analysts wondering if Pfizer overpaid. That’s because Johnson & Johnson’s own therapy Zytiga produced clinical results so impressive that some investors and doctors are already predicting it will become a go-to option for newly-diagnosed men with high-risk prostate cancer. Consider: Zytiga cut the death risk for patients by 38% in a trial, meaning it could soon be prescribed much earlier in the treatment process. The J&J drug had been ceding some market share to Xtandi; that trend could very well reverse itself now.
  • Drug combinations are the wave of the future—and could accelerate biopharma deals. One of the biggest trends in oncology R&D is testing out combinations of next-generation cancer immunotherapies called “checkpoint inhibitors” (such as Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo) with other cancer treatments in order to make combos which could prove more effective and help a wider swath of patients. There are mountains of clinical studies testing these kinds of drug cocktails, often featuring a backbone checkpoint inhibitor drug in addition to a different type of therapy from a cancer-focused biotech. And that could very well lead to even more consolidation in the oncology sphere, biotech investor and immuno-oncology fund manager Brad Loncar tells Fortune in an interview. “That seems like a logical trend to me,” he said, since bigger drug companies will likely feel compelled to snatch up assets that could make their existing medicines more effective (and rake in more sales).

Read on for the day’s other news.

Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

Cerner snags huge VA contract in no-bid deal. Kansas City-based Cerner has won a massive contract to redesign the Department of Veterans Affairs’ heavily-criticized electronic health records (EHR) system. The contract, whose total value is still unclear but will likely number in the hundreds of millions, was awarded in a no-bid deal. VA Secretary David Shulkin said that there was a “public interest exception” for giving Cerner the contract without examining other bids, especially considering that the system would better be able to communicate with the Defense Department’s EHR tech, which Cerner also worked on. (Kansas City Star)

Want to stop health care ransomware? Train your employees. One of the easiest ways to prevent massive health care data breaches and ransomware is simply giving medical system employees adequate cybersecurity training, Modern Healthcare reports. That’s because hackers and cybercriminals often employ sketchy phishing emails or take advantage of unchanged passwords to gain access to a health system and patients’ financial and medical information—techniques that would likely fail if health care workers followed more careful digital protocols. (Modern Healthcare)

INDICATIONS

Biotech wunderkind Vivek Ramaswamy launches his latest company. 31-year-old hedge funder-turned-biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy has launched his fifth biotech under the umbrella of Roivant Sciences, the company he founded and heads. The latest will be dubbed Urovant sciences and focus on (you guessed it) urology drugs, with a late-stage overactive bladder treatment Roivant has licensed from Merck as the first in the pipeline. “We are delighted to welcome another ‘Vant’ to our growing family of companies,” said Ramaswamy in a statement. “Urologic conditions such as overactive bladder adversely impact millions of individuals, and the current treatment options are unsatisfactory for many patients. Our aim is to provide patients with better options as quickly as possible.” Other Roivant companies include Alzheimer’s-focused Axovant, women’s health firm Myovant (both of those companies had monster IPOs), and the private outfits Dermavant and Enzyvant (dermatology and rare diseases, respectively).

THE BIG PICTURE

Senate aims for summer vote on Obamacare replacement—even if it’s doomed. Politico reports that GOP Senate leaders are aiming to vote on an Obamacare replacement bill by the end of June regardless of whether or not it has the 50 votes necessary to pass. Senate Republicans have expressed skepticism about the House’s version of health care reform, the American Health Care Act, and have struggled to unite disparate moderate and conservative factions on comprehensive legislation. By pushing for a summer vote, GOP lawmakers believe they can clear up some much-needed room on the legislative calendar and tackle other issues such as tax reform and infrastructure. (Politico)

Hospitals hire lawyers for patients as medical model shifts. Health systems are beginning to hire lawyers to assist patients with various legal concerns free of charge as medical care moves toward value-based models that aim to offer more holistic care, according to Kaiser Health News. These lawyers can assist people who have trouble getting housing or require power of attorney, among other services that can make the medical process less stressful and more effective. (Kaiser Health News)

REQUIRED READING

The Pros and Cons of Trump’s Plan to Privatize Air Traffic Controlby The Associated Press

Sesame Workshop Trying a New Teaching Tactic With IBM Watsonby Rachel King

How Women Grads Can Succeed in Techby Melinda Gates

Seattle Becomes Latest American City to Tax Sugary Drinksby Reuters

Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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