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Brainstorm Health: AARP Alzheimer’s Venture, AbbVie Calico Deal, Right to Try Controversy

June 26, 2018, 8:51 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers! This is Sy.

On Monday, the AARP, joined by a coalition of powerhouse partners like UnitedHealth Group (the country’s largest insurer) and Quest Diagnostics (the clinical diagnostics and lab testing giant), announced a combined $75 million investment between the three organizations meant to tackle the scourge of Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.

AARP’s personal investment was $60 million into a broader, $350 million collaboration called the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), as part of an effort to kick off its own “Disrupt Dementia” campaign. The DDF has a number of other big name partners including Bill Gates (who’s poured in $50 million of his own money into the fund), the NFL Players Association, and a whole host of pharmaceutical companies like Biogen, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, and others.

Fortune spoke with Steve Rusckowski, CEO of Quest Diagnostics, and AARP’s chief operating officer, Scott Frisch, about the collaboration—and the greater promise and peril in Alzheimer’s and dementia-related drug development and prevention.

“Right now, the two biggest killers are cardiovascular disease and cancer,” said Rusckowski. He’s right—heart disease and related conditions are responsible for about one in four American deaths. Cancers aren’t too far behind. But Alzheimer’s is catching up fast, especially in the wake of an aging population. And unlike heart disease or cancer, there hasn’t been a significant new medical advance in Alzheimer’s in about 15 years. In fact, there have been several heartbreaking R&D failures in the space in the last two years alone.

“Of the leading causes of death still around, Alzheimer’s is the only one without a cure or treatment,” notes Rusckowski, adding that a number of conditions like HIV and cancer have, on some level, been transformed into chronic conditions rather than death sentences thanks to the advent of new drugs.

AARP’s Frisch adds that this issue is one that is especially important to the organization’s membership of older Americans. “Of our 38 million members, so many say that staying mentally sharp is a top priority and top concern,” he tells Fortune. “[Yet] there is no known diagnosis, no single test you could have for Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.”

That critical shortfall is what this dementia fund is setting out to solve. In part, that will involve experimenting with new ways of dealing with dementia-related disease, such as by seeking out how to prevent it in the first place. A prevention-focused model got a major boost in April when the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging released a new proposed framework focusing on that tactic.

But success will require answering questions that have gone frustratingly unanswered, such as which biological markers can be used to sniff out the basic roots of the disease (rather than just identifying the tell-tale signs after someone already has it).

The downstream effects could be dire barring progress. In America alone, 15 million people are expected to have Alzheimer’s by 2060, and caregivers for people with the disease and other dementia-related disorders (usually family and friends) provided a staggering 18.4 billion hours of unpaid care to the patients in 2017.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


AbbVie, Google's Calico expand collaboration. Biotech giant AbbVie and Google parent Alphabet's Calico (its secretive startup that's aiming to tackle "aging-related diseases") is upping the ante on its existing partnership. The companies are pouring another $1 billion into treating aging-related conditions, including cancers and neurological conditions. Under the terms of the deal, Calico will take up the mantle of early research and development through 2022 and mid-stage clinical trials through 2027, after which AbbVie will have the option to commercialize later stage efforts, CNBC reports. (CNBC)

CVS is doing nationwide prescription deliveries. Is that enough? CVS recently announced nationwide pharmaceutical delivery services. Eric Kinariwala, CEO of the digital health firm Capsule, has some thoughts on that—including the plan's shortcomings. "The CVS stuff is interesting but also not interesting," he tells Fortune. For one thing, Kinariwala points out, he doesn't feel the service solves the "underlying issue" for consumers—namely, "creating an integrated pharmacy experience." Perhaps unsurprisingly, he argues that services like Capsule, which integrates services like at-home delivery, refills and new prescriptions, and coordinating conversations with doctors' offices and insurers, is what patients will ultimately be seeking in the digital health era.


The Right to Try controversy is only getting started. President Donald Trump signed the "Right to Try" Act into law earlier this year, setting off a wave of controversy among pharmaceutical industry watchdogs. The legislation largely cuts the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) out of the compassionate use process of providing experimental, unapproved drugs to patients with devastating diseases. But that's brought with it concerns about whether or not some drug makers may abuse the process to hawk unproven treatments at potentially exorbitant prices, since insurance companies wouldn't necessarily have to cover the therapies. The case of BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, which has now decided not to provide its experimental Lou Gehrig's/ALS treatment under the law, is one illustration of the controversy. (Reuters)

Roivant undergoes major restructuring. Biotech Roivant embarked on an ambitious journey to take experimental drugs that had been ditched or otherwise ignored, snap them up, and shepherd them across the regulatory finish line. And then it hit some significant hurdles (including an all-out crash for an experimental Alzheimer's treatment). Now, the company is undergoing a major restructure, reportedly laying off about 10% of its workforce and reassigning many others. (FierceBiotech)


Abortion foes win a victory at the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a California law targeting so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" that are actually anti-abortion is likely unconstitutional. The California statute would have required such centers to post notice of the availability of state-funded abortion services; the 5-4 SCOTUS ruling asserts that the law would violate the pregnancy centers' free speech rights. (NBC News)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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