Former U.S. vice president Joe Biden expressed alarm over the many obstacles slowing down progress in the healthcare industry. Photo credit: Josh Edelson/StartUp Health
On my way to the Westin Monday morning, my Uber driver wanted to know why so many people suddenly needed rides. After telling him about the conference, I asked whom he’d ferried around so far and what they’d been talking about. “Men,” he said. “Lots of men talking about money and who they know.”
It’s not a bad description of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, an annual gathering in which (mostly male) pharma CEOs, deliver rosy projections to an (overwhelmingly male) audience
Money isn’t all of it, of course. The conference is also about presenting updates on drugs, therapies, clinical trials, devices, and other tools that treat a wide variety of conditions, some rare, some that affect wide swathes of the population.
But amidst the references to shareholder value creation, headwinds, patent cliffs, and capital allocation, these stakes can be obscured (it’s a conference for investors, after all). Joe Biden, speaking at the adjacent Startup Health conference, made sure that never happened.
Biden began by asking everyone in the audience to raise their hands if they’d been affected by cancer, either personally or through a friend or family member. Nearly every hand went up. The former vice president, who lost his son, Beau, to the disease in 2015, expressed alarm over the many obstacles slowing down progress. He seemed particularly disgusted by the healthcare industry’s reluctance and inability to easily share data. “There is so much hope and promise, but we aren’t there yet,” he said. His sense of frustration, anger, expectation, and grief was palpable.
Back at JP Morgan, multiple companies presented on novel drugs for treating cancer as well as other diseases that have touched, in some capacity, many of the people in the room.
Here’s an overview of some of the day’s themes.
Age-related diseases and chronic conditions.
The U.S. population is aging (by the year 2030, around 31 million Americans will be older than 75). This brings unique challenges – as well as opportunities for drug companies. Gilead, which presented on Monday, has seen U.S. sales of its HCV franchise decline, a trend it hopes to offset with revenues from its range of HIV drugs, including the first-line HIV treatment Genvoya, which demonstrated favorable bone parameters. “These are medicines that are particularly well-suited for the aging HIV population,” said CEO John Milligan. An aging population is also good for Amgen’s osteoporosis drug Prolia. “The demographics continue to drive strong growth for this franchise,” CEO Robert Bradway said.
In a presentation late Tuesday morning, Dexcom CEO Kevin Sayer spoke about the power and potential of continuous glucose monitoring for patients with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, conditions that primarily affect middle-aged and older adults. More data means more insights, ideally ones that are immediate, personalized, and actionable, Sayer said. The market for diabetes management is large – and growing – but the space is also becoming more competitive.
Day two at the conference saw presentations from Juno Therapeutics and bluebird bio, both of which have CAR-T therapies advancing through the pipeline. Bluebird CEO Nick Leschly, who kicked off the day with a 7:30 A.M. presentation, said he expects the company will file three novel treatments, including its CAR-T therapy for multiple myeloma, by the end of next year. His presentation raised larger questions about how to price the therapy (existing CAR-T treatments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).
Pharma’s diversity problem.
The gender imbalance at the conference (and, by extension, the industry) is immediate and visually striking. Men far outnumber women, a breakdown that carries over to the presenters. (STAT crunched the numbers and found there were more presenters named Michael than female CEOs presenting this year.)
The ratio among top-10 pharma company chief executives is even more lopsided. Until Emma Walmsley took the helm of GSK in April, there were no women in that rarified group.
During her presentation on Tuesday, Walmsley outlined her overhaul plans. (GSK’s existing portfolios, which include vaccines, respiratory conditions, and HIV drugs – are facing a host of threats.) She plans to narrow the company’s focus to its central portfolios, and has already replaced 40% of the company’s top executives, a move designed to bring “fresh perspective, diversity, and leadership strength.”
By my count, she was the only CEO to mention diversity in a presentation (a highly informal metric, but still). In the breakout session following her presentation, she was explicitly asked about the topic. She said that while she defines herself by her actions, not her gender, she also knows that as a woman, she has the added responsibility and privilege of being a role model. “You’re just more visible — whether you like it or not, you just are,” she said, before gently chastising the industry.
“You cannot be a modern employer in an industry that should be future-facing and modernizing, arguably much more aggressively than it is, without being very demanding on this topic,” she continued. “I really do think that part of our trust agenda is being a modern employer, where whoever you are, whatever shape or size you come in, whatever you look like, whatever you stand for, you can bring the very best version of yourself to work without fear of bullying or reprisal let alone any kind of inappropriate behavior.”
Other noteworthy events:
In a fireside chat, Anne Wojcicki discussed 23andMe’s data collection (85% of users opt-in to share their genetic information). “This idea, that people are so sensitive about their health information, and no one wants to share…in some ways, those days are over,” she said.
Axovant Sciences CEO David Hung’s presentation exceeded the 10-minute mark — but just barely. Yesterday, the company’s stock plummeted following news it was scrapping its intepirdine program.