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Brainstorm Health: Alzheimer’s Drug Failures, Sage Therapeutics Stock, Azar on Drug Prices

Good afternoon, readers—This is Sy.

Of the diseases that regularly afflict millions upon millions of Americans, few have been quite as nefarious as Alzheimer’s when it comes to defying drug developers’ most ardent efforts. That trend continued Tuesday as Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and partner AstraZeneca of the U.K. threw in the towel on late-stage clinical trials for an Alzheimer’s medicine hopeful. The move, while not entirely unexpected, could telegraph doom for an entire class of experimental treatments called “BACE inhibitors” aimed at treating a disease projected to afflict 15 million Americans by 2060.

Heart disease is still the number one killer in the United States; cancer isn’t far behind. But, for all the challenges still presented by those maladies, new therapies and cultural shifts have brought with them significant progress. Recent analyses by groups like the American Cancer Society (ACS) have found that cancer deaths have fallen sharply in the past decade, and that better drugs and better screening—as well as critical lifestyle shifts including a deep plunge in smoking rates—are helping people live longer. The anti-smoking trend has also helped keep a lid on heart disease deaths (though obesity remains a major issue), and drugs for controlling blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight have been widely available for decades.

The same can’t be said for Alzheimer’s other than on the most superficial level. There hasn’t been a new treatment for the brain-eating disease in well more than a decade; the ones that do exist only treat symptoms, not the root causes of the disease; and biopharma mainstays like Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer have either faced devastating setbacks in the clinic or pulled resources from Alzheimer’s R&D, in addition to countless smaller biotechs. Heck, scientists still don’t entirely agree on what exactly should be the biological target for fending off dementia-related diseases.

That’s part of the reason the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging released a new framework in April that could spur more firms to concentrate on how to prevent Alzheimer’s (or at least stop the disease from getting worse) in the first place, rather than focus exclusively on post-hoc treatment. But for now, the record of success in this field remains grim.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Apple Watch’s Parkinson’s ambitions. The Apple Watch experiment in Parkinson’s disease is going full steam ahead, the company announced at its WWDC developer’s conference—a continuation of its ambitious ResearchKit template that’s been adopted by a number of major pharmaceutical companies and academic research organizations to collect so-called “real world data” on patients. Apple says that a new software update will (theoretically) let the Apple Watch discern between a Parkinson’s-related shake and regular movements, potentially helping researchers better understand the various factors correlated with such an episode. (CNBC)


Sage Therapeutics shoots up on FDA fast track. Shares of drug developer Sage Therapeutics shot up more than 18% in Tuesday trading after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fast tracked its experimental depression drug, which takes a different approach to tackling the mental health condition that may not require as much dosing. (Bloomberg)

HHS Secretary Azar testifies on drug prices. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar stared down a Senate committee today, facing questions on the Trump administration’s recently released drug pricing proposals (and a number of other touchy health care-related issues). President Trump’s claims following that plan’s release (that drug makers would soon be instituting price decreases of their own accord) drew some arched eyebrows at the hearing; from a policy perspective, the administration clearly wants to target pharmacy benefits managers, aka the opaque middlemen of drug price negotiations. But Azar continued to oppose Medicare drug price negotiations, which some argue would have a more outsize effect given the government’s bargaining power. (Xconomy)


Prominent cancer biologist resigns amid harassment allegations. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have taken down prominent businessmen, politicians, Hollywood celebrities, and various other men accused of misconduct across the spectrum of power. The scientific and biopharmaceutical fields aren’t immune from the wave. Inder Verma, a prominent gene therapy and cancer immunotherapy expert, has resigned from the renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies following allegations of sexual harassment by more than a half dozen women. Verma has previously denied wrongdoing; his resignation was accepted unanimously by Salk’s board of trustees. (Nature)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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