Brainstorm Health: Roche Buys Flatiron, FDA Alzheimer’s Guidance, Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

February 16, 2018, 5:50 PM UTC

Hello and happy Friday, readers! This is Sy.

The big headline out of the health care M&A world today is Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche’s $1.9 billion acquisition of Flatiron Health, the Alphabet-backed, cancer-focused digital health analytics upstart that’s attempting to use real world patient information and big data to spur better oncology R&D.

Flatiron’s cancer-centric electronic health records platform is linked to some 250 community oncology practices; it has a partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to improve clinical trials by gathering data at the point of care. What’s made the company appealing to venture capital outfits, the drug industry, and the government is that Flatiron doesn’t just suck in a bunch of numbers and spit them out—its datasets are curated in an effort to separate statistical noise from actionable information. That’s hard to pull off on a mass scale.

Roche was already a major investor in Flatiron with a 12.6% stake; now, it’s claiming it as a subsidiary. “This is an important step in our personalized healthcare strategy for Roche, as we believe that regulatory-grade real-world evidence is a key ingredient to accelerate the development of, and access to, new cancer treatments,” said Roche CEO Daniel O’Day in a statement. “As a leading technology company in oncology, Flatiron Health is best positioned to provide the technology and data analytics infrastructure needed not only for Roche, but for oncology research and development efforts across the entire industry.”

The acquisition could prove significant for cancer drug, diagnostics, and care development by, not only Roche, but companies across the biopharma sector—Flatiron will remain a separate legal entity, meaning it can still provide its services to other life science firms.

We’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday, February 20 following the President’s Day holiday. Read on for the day’s news, and enjoy your long weekend.


The FDA is trying to throw Alzheimer's drug developers a lifeline. Proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance may make it easier for biopharma companies to get drugs approved in one of the most frustrating therapeutic spaces around: Alzheimer's. If enacted, drug makers may be able to use different kinds of clinical study goals in their approval quests than the current general standards of reversing or slowing cognitive impairment. For instance, the reduction of "biomarkers" which may be tell-tale signs of Alzheimer's in early-stage or at-risk patients could be enough to make it past the regulatory finish line under the proposed guidance. The rules likely reflect the reality that Alzheimer's drug development has been catastrophically unsuccessful in recent years, and may spur companies to continue taking risks in a heartbreaking R&D field. (Reuters)


This year's flu vaccine is only 36% effective. The Centers for Disease Control released its latest flu season update and confirmed that, at least up till now, this year's main flu vaccine is only 36% effective in protecting against the A and B strains of influenza. That's particularly bad news because the deadly H3N2 virus spreading (and killing) Americans this year falls under that category (flu vaccines typically range from 40% to 60% efficacy). Still, public health officials urge anyone who hasn't received a flu shot yet to get one as it could, at the very least, make symptoms less severe for those who contract the virus. And, no, it's not too late to get one. (U.S. News & World Report)

America is a clear global outlier when it comes to gun violence's effect on health. Gun politics tend to get heated and divisive. But there's a pretty clear empirical consensus that gun violence is a significant contributor to premature deaths and disability in the U.S.—and that America is a complete outlier compared to similar nations in this regard. One example: "In the U.S., 225 years of life per 100,000 people are lost to disability and premature death as a result of assault by firearm—almost 19 times the comparable country average of 12 years of life per 100,000 people," according to a 2017 Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker report. (Fortune)


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