2021-01-17| Asia-PacificCOVID-19

Key Takeaways from the JPM Healthcare Conference: Gilead, Regeneron Lay Oncology Plans, Merck Looks Beyond Keytruda

by Ruchi Jhonsa
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The 39th J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference witnessed several important announcements from healthcare giants and pharma behemoths. Some of them discussed their efforts to fight against the pandemic, and others revealed their 2021 plans. Here we present some important highlights from the conference.


Gilead Bets on Oncology and Antivirals

Although COVID-19 has proved to be a nightmare, many global biopharma companies have contributed immensely in lessening its blow with swift and early initiatives. At the JPM conference, Gilead’s efforts were recognized. Gilead’s CEO, Dan O’Day, spoke volumes about the role Remdesivir played in benefiting the patients.

Though the pandemic made the company sidetrack for a while, it did not deter its plan of becoming an oncology and inflammation champion in the future. At the beginning of the last year, the company acquired Forty Seven, made agreements with Arcus, Pionyr, and Tizona, and made the second-biggest acquisition deal with Immunomedics for an FDA-approved oncology drug, Trodelvy. With the 2020 deals, Gilead is poised to have a more sustainable and diverse portfolio. It has captured some of the drugs with successful on-market status and compelling data. It has made smart deals that provide opt-in rights after the proof-of-concept data is in hand.

Pointing towards the company’s revamping efforts, Dan O’Day said, “You see a very different portfolio at Gilead today, and the growth drivers have a high probability of success because of their on market status like Trodelvy. With Trodelvy, an antibody-drug conjugate, Yescarta, a cell therapy, a second cell therapy on Tecartus, Gilead has a real world-class oncology portfolio.” However, Gilead still values its roots that are deep down in the field of antivirals and will continue building on its leadership in antivirals.

Gilead is relying boldly on its oncology portfolio, which includes its favorite drug Trodelvy and antiviral portfolio, which includes Biktarvy and Descovy, for cashing big bucks. According to O’Day, Trodelvy usage will be expanded and tested on multiple tumor types as a monotherapy and in combination with checkpoint therapies or PARP inhibitors, TIGIT inhibitors, and CD47 inhibitors. Similarly, Gilead is expanding usage of its HIV treatment, Lenacapavir, in the prevention of the infection.


Johnson and Johnson Updates on its Single Dose Vaccine

Given the dearth of vaccinations across the country, Chris Schott, the moderator of the presentation at the JPM conference, was eager to know about J&J’s coronavirus vaccine status. J&J’s vaccine is particularly important, as it is a single-shot vaccine. This will help vaccinate a large number of people in a short period of time. The CFO and executive vice president of the company, Joe Walk, mentioned that the company is at the final stage of analysis and will soon be coming out with the status of the vaccine.

Besides the vaccine update, J&J updated about their future plans with the existing pipeline. The company has 10 compounds in immunology and oncology divisions worth $1 billion that will be filed or launched in the coming years. They are particularly excited about the deal made with Momenta that will push their immunology platform to a great extent. The company is also pushing hard for HIV and RSV vaccines, although their efforts were sidelined a bit as they started working on the coronavirus vaccine. While J&J’s pharma sector enjoyed 2020, its medical and orthopedic device sector had hit a bump. The company is, however, hopeful that soon it will get back on track.

Last year, J&J made a big deal with Momenta to broaden its leadership in immune-mediated diseases. At the conference, however, the company did not announce any M&As it is expecting this year. But it is keeping an eye for company’s that will complement their pipeline and help them grow their platforms.


A New and Focused Pfizer is in the Making

2020 was a fascinating year for Pfizer, who in a record time of 11 months, delivered a remarkable coronavirus vaccine, preventing millions from the infection. However, a daunting task for the company is to deliver an ample number of vaccines that can immunize a major chunk of the population. The CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, updated that the company is going to deliver 2 billion vaccines in 2021. They have partnerships with companies manufacturing raw material, third-party deals, and new equipment, all of which are helping them deliver the vaccine at record speed and timing.

mRNA vaccines have certainly revolutionized the field of vaccines, and Albert strongly believes that this technology will not die down with the pandemic. It is already being used for the development of the flu vaccine and will be used in areas of other viral diseases in the future.

The company is, however, more than just the vaccine. In the past 10 years, the company has seen some major revamping in terms of the pipeline, which has dramatically improved the productivity of the company. “In 2010, Pfizer was operating in 13 therapeutic areas. We were spread very thin: our research, our resources. And we were okay or mediocre in each one of them. Today, we are focusing on 6 therapeutic areas, and we are double-downing on them.” Elaborating on the pipeline, Albert said, “We have 3 organic projects. We have 3 in the clinic. We just licensed 2 more with Vivet and Therachon. We have 7 in addition to those 5, they are preclinical. And we are building in some fort here in the U.S. the largest gene therapy manufacturing capacity in the world. We have an immuno-inflammation franchise, which is likely one of the most advanced in comparison to the competition. We have 5 different JAKs including abrocitinib that we’re starting in more than 10 different indications.”

Besides the well-talked drugs, Pfizer is also working on rare diseases, including hemophilia A and B and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which have a very high probability of success. Pfizer is already in the late phase of Duchenne trials and has excellent results in managing the first side effects.


Regeneron is Eyeing Cancer Drug Combo for Growth

At the peak of the pandemic, many companies started developing therapies that can cure the infection. While some came out with chemicals that interfered with viral replication, others developed a cocktail of antibodies that could interfere with the binding of the virus to the host cells. Regeneron developed the antibody cocktail that reduced the risk of infected patients progressing to more serious diseases by 84%. This remarkable efficacy formed the basis of the FDA’s EUA for high-risk patients. However, the company has hit a roadblock in delivering the therapy to the patients and is working with the government to rectify the situation.

Despite the COVID-19 challenge that the company faced this year, it was successful at delivering 29% top-line growth as of September last year. Regeneron reported net sales of $5 billion for Eylea in 2020. But this was not the focus of the presentation this year. Instead, the company focused on two of their products, one from oncology and one from inflammatory indication. Dupixent is the company’s recently approved anti-inflammatory product used for the treatment of asthma, atopic dermatitis, and chronic rhinosinusitis. Dr. George Yancopoulos pointed out that the company is planning on expanding the drug label for eight additional type 2 diseases, which will address 1 million patients in the US alone.

While the company is gathering data from these additional inflammatory clinical trials, it is simultaneously also strengthening its oncology profile. Regeneron doesn’t believe in one drug one cancer approach, rather it believes in combining various antibodies and bispecifics to generate a robust response against cancer. The company is presently combining Libtayo with CD3 bispecifics and costimulatory bispecifics, different bispecifics to target cancer.


Merck is Neither Complacent nor Desperate of Losing Keytruda Exclusivity

For Merck, currently, the biggest challenge is how to keep the growth up after the company loses exclusivity on Keytruda, its blockbuster checkpoint cancer therapy. At the JPM conference, Merck explained in detail the plan to diversify the portfolio and reduce dependency on the drug for growth. While Merck plans on temporarily extending Keytruda’s patent life by co-formulations and combinations with other drugs, it also is looking for external science in oncology and outside oncology for stable long-term growth.

We have a rich internal pipeline with over 25 mechanisms in the clinic. But I would say that we really emphasized immune-modulatory mechanisms in our internal pipeline and many of those products are coming out as co-formulated and are advancing in Phase 3 this year,” noted Dean Li, the newly appointed President of Merck Research Lab. Besides, Merck made 120 business deals in 2020 and it is building upon success in the partnerships with AstraZeneca, Eisai, Seattle Genetics, VelosBio.

With Keytruda losing its patent exclusivity soon, Merck is actively looking for an asset that could match its revenue. However, Ken Frazier points out that it is a risk making any deals now as the biotech is at an all-time high. Therefore, the acquisition of any asset will come at a very steep price. Merck will, therefore, wait and watch and if anything interesting comes up, it will pay aggressively for it.

Another field where Merck has now started focusing on is women’s health. Merck had several products in this domain, however, lack of attention did not generate enough revenues from them. It is now planning to separate the business from Merck and let it grow as a separate entity, Organon, which will help it develop better.

Related Article: JPM Healthcare Conference Highlights: Editas Upbeat about EDIT-101 Success, Verve Continues to Tackle Cholesterol



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