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Brainstorm Health: Biogen Alzheimer’s Drug, CVS Meets CBD, New CRISPR Company

March 21, 2019, 10:50 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

It was a sad day for biopharma. Yet again, an Alzheimer’s drug hopeful crashed and burned in critical late-stage clinical trials. The victim, this time, was biotech giant Biogen (alongside Japanese partner Eisai), which had placed a massive amount of time and money in a high-risk bet on experimental Alzheimer’s treatments.

The companies announced on Thursday that they would be discontinuing trials of aducanumab. And the news caused Biogen shares to tank nearly 30% in trading, erasing nearly $20 billion of the company’s market value. (For context, as biotech VC Bruce Booth points out, the 130-plus biotech IPOs since January 2015 raised $15 billion.)

A number of analysts across the biopharma spectrum expressed a sort of knowing sadness about this latest failure, which follows a trail of disappointments that’s dogged companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Merck, and countless others. There are no available treatments to address the underlying disease of Alzheimer’s; the last approved therapy, which only treats the condition’s symptoms, was approved well over a decade ago.

Much of the commentary around these failures focuses on the central approach companies have taken in recent years: That is, by focusing on the “beta-amyloid hypothesis,” which places the buildup of a kind of brain plaque at the center of drug development efforts, in lieu of targeting other biological targets.

That strategy has come under increasing scrutiny, as Fortune has previously reported. Our own Editor in Chief (known to regular readers as Cliff) had an expansive and informative piece on the various issues dogging Alzheimer’s drug development in this very column last summer.

The question is whether Biogen’s astoundingly expensive failure will shift the industry’s approach on a meaningful scale. To that end, there are several upstart companies looking to shake things up – including United Neuroscience, which is attempting to develop vaccines to actually prevent Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders from occurring in the first place.

Speaking of… United Neuroscience’s CEO, Mei Mei Hu, will be speaking at our upcoming Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego in a little more than a week – as will Paul Cox, whose fascinatingly unconventional approach to Alzheimer’s treatment landed Fortune‘s February cover story. In an era where the go-to strategy has failed time and time again, these pioneers’ outside-the-box thinking may very well seep into the mainstream.

And for you fans of The Sopranos, the crime drama classic which debuted 20 years ago – actress Edie Falco, aka Carmela Soprano herself, will also be at Brainstorm Health for a candid conversation with our conference co-chair Arianna Huffington. We hope to see you there.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Feng Zhang and colleagues launch a new kind of CRISPR company. CRISPR gene editing pioneer Feng Zhang and his posse are launching another CRISPR-focused upstart, this time centering on diagnostics. Sherlock Bio will be at least the third gene editing biotech co-founded by Zhang based on his team's research from the Broad Institute; but, rather than creating medicines based on the technology, this firm will focus on detecting and diagnosing disease via CRISPR. Just how would that work? “Existing molecular diagnostic tools are often limited in their effectiveness because they are costly, labor-intensive, and are not mobile,” said Sherlock co-founder David Walt in a statement. “We believe that Sherlock is poised to overcome those challenges by creating tests that are faster, less expensive, and easier to use than currently available molecular diagnostics.”  (Xconomy)


CBD is coming to a CVS near you. Retail and pharmacy giant CVS is getting in on the CBD hype. The company's stores across eight states will sell cannabidiol (CBD) products including lotions, sprays, and other products. Despite its association with marijuana, which is on more shaky regulatory ground, CBD isn't illegal; its ostensible health benefits (such as anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects), however, haven't exactly been validated by rigorous clinical trials (although that's also an issue related to restrictions on that kind of research to date). (Fortune)


New Zealand follows Australia's example on gun violence. In America, gun violence has become a public health crisis. That's the opinion of numerous medical experts, ranging from the emergency room physicians who treat victims to more or less every single U.S. Surgeon General in the past three decades. The heated politics of gun regulation in America has halted more or less any legislative action in recent years; but other countries have taken a different tact. In fact, New Zealand swiftly issued a ban on "military-style" semi-automatic rifles and several other types of firearms less than a week after massacres at two mosques conducted with these weapons. It follows the example of the country's close neighbor, Australia, which similarly passed sweeping gun regulations in the wake of a mass shooting in 1996 - after which gun violence essentially ended in the country. (Fortune)


Levi Strauss IPO Impresses, by Phil Wahba

Mortgage Rates Hit 52-Week Low After Fed Meeting, by Chris Morris

People Are Becoming Increasingly Skeptical of Science, by Renae Reints

Produced by Sy Mukherjee
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