Drug pricing. The opioid epidemic. Boardroom diversity. Immigration crackdowns. The state of cancer care now, and in the future. These things aren’t just topics of conversation in Boston biotech circles, but nationwide. Connecting those two with some lively, candid discussions was the idea behind Xconomy’s “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech” event last week.
Today we’re circling back to give you a small taste of the festivities through a slideshow and a few takeaways from the afternoon—and of course, to offer some hearty thank-yous to everyone who helped make it happen.
Thanks first to all of our attendees for packing the house, and our speakers: Flagship Pioneering founder Noubar Afeyan; Editas Medicine CEO Katrine Bosley; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute president and CEO Laurie Glimcher; Biogen chairman Stelios Papadopoulos; Alkermes CEO Richard Pops; Biomedical Growth Strategies president and CEO Susan Windham-Bannister; Arrakis Therapeutics CEO Michael Gilman; Third Rock Ventures partner Abbie Celniker; Agios Pharmaceuticals CEO David Schenkein; Sarepta Therapeutics president and CEO Ed Kaye; Yumanity Therapeutics chairman and CEO Tony Coles; Ovid Therapeutics CEO Jeremy Levin; National Organization for Rare Disorders president and CEO Peter Saltonstall; Sheriff of Middlesex County Peter Koutoujian; and Fish & Richardson partner Teresa Lavoie.
Thanks also to our event host Biogen, and our sponsors Fish & Richardson, Bayer, Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, General Electric, Wuxi AppTec, Northeastern University, and The Richmond Group. And a hat tip to David Bruno for the photos. Hope you all enjoy them, and we’ll see you again next year.
With that, here are just a few tidbits to chew on from a jam-packed afternoon:
The Cancer Combo Bottleneck: Like many others, Dana Farber Cancer Center president and CEO Laurie Glimcher believes the future of cancer care is turning it into a chronic disease people can survive. That requires combination therapy, and that’s why there is, as she says, an “enormous matrix” of experimental drugs to be tested with one another to see which combinations work best.
To test them, however, companies need patients, and patients need access to clinical trials. The problem: a majority of cancer care is delivered by community oncologists, not large centers like Dana-Farber, and only a fraction of those patients end up in clinical trials. “They just don’t have the infrastructure that’s currently required to do a clinical trial,” Agios Pharmaceuticals CEO David Schenkein said. That bottleneck stymies companies’ abilities to efficiently test this wide swath of potential combinations. “We already have a ton of patients on clinical trials, but we need more,” Glimcher said.
Stifling immigration = retrograde: When the Trump administration first proposed a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, Ovid Therapeutics CEO Jeremy Levin co-authored a letter signed by more than 100 biotech executives condemning the initiative and praising the impact immigration has had on the life sciences industry. That order, and a second attempt, have both been blocked by federal courts. But government efforts to crack down on immigration have nonetheless ramped up.
At the event, Levin argued that any “political move” to put up barriers at a time when scientific communication across the globe is as strong as it’s ever been is “so retrograde.” Compromising that network, and effectively stopping the flow of “talent and ideas” will “erode the fundamental elements of innovation,” he said, slowing the life sciences industry’s progress along the way. “We would be doing a great disservice to our industry and our nation by not fighting every step of the way to ensure that immigration continues,” he said.
What’s important to patients? Ask them: The rising power of patient advocacy was on display last year when Sarepta Therapetuics (NASDAQ: SRPT) won FDA approval of a Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug, eteplirsen (Exondys 51), whose most substantial data came from a tiny, 12-patient trial yet was supported vociferously by a mobilized patient community. And in his six years at Sarepta, CEO Ed Kaye has seen it all firsthand. Things are different now than they were when Kaye started at Genzyme back in 2001; his eyes were opened when he started at Sarepta. “Patient involvement, but also the knowledge of the patients was so much greater,” he said. “Patients were informing us about aspects of the disease.”
Just one example: According to Kaye, families have told Sarepta that “nobody cares about” the industry standard 6 minute walk test, the main clinical trial goal in Duchenne studies. Patients want to be able to use their iPhones, computers, and wheelchairs; to be able to independently get from a wheelchair to a toilet. Why doesn’t Sarepta collect this data? “We said, well, we should,” Kaye said.
Sarepta got a list of suggestions from patients, and has since incorporated them into its ongoing clinical trials. “If we didn’t address the needs of the patients, we weren’t developing a good drug,” he said.