Friday, October 05, 2007

On the Beach at St. Tropez

Oh please, please Brer VC, please don’t make me go to St. Tropez.

But he did, and your blogger has endured the vins de Provence, smoked salmon and paté, chevre and Roquefort, moules mariniere, and breast of duck of Atlas Venture’s Riviera hospitality to provide you some personal takeaways from its Life Sciences retreat.

We’re not quoting attendees or speeches thanks to our journalistically questionable promise to ascribe none of the chit-chat to particular attendees—a promise we assume doesn’t apply to IN VIVO Blog's own presentation, which is available here for free downloading (thanks to Atlas’ Kevin Clancy for preparing the slides).

And oh yeah, it also doesn’t apply to the other day’s Myogen vs. the VCs post.

So what did we learn midst gawking at boats the size of our house?

The increasing leverage of biotech. Everyone agrees that the pivot point of deal values is proof-of-concept (for more on why, see here and here).

But will the prices continue to increase? Yup. Despite Big Pharma’s relatively rich early-stage pipelines, thanks in part to a better understanding of chemical challenges, the biological risk has soared—and with it the attrition rates. While we at least believe in the possibility that collaborations are now inching toward the asymptotic endgame of full value, one top Big Pharma executive argued--with the authority to do so--just the opposite: given the appetite from his and other companies for post-proof-of-concept candidates, deal prices will continue to rise on just about the same steep slope they’re on now.

No end in sight to the Big Pharma biologics appetite, whetted by lower perceived risk, higher pricing, and—thanks to the regulatory Berlin Wall against biosimilars—longer product lives. (For an in-depth analysis of pharma strategies here, see the upcoming October issue of IN VIVO). Particularly mouthwatering: technologies—like Adnexus’s Adnectins—which open up the IP spaces around validated mechanisms targeted by antibodies to improved fast-followers.

But not so fast. Let’s at least admit we really don’t know the risk of biologics, at least not in quantity. Think first about manufacturing, cautioned one former research chief. Are companies whose QA/QC processes were built around the relatively straightforward chemical characterization of small molecules really prepared for the kind of QC necessary for parallel bioprocessing of perhaps a dozen biologics (a slide on Pfizer’s pipeline, chock full of biologics, showed just how possible a flood of biologics might be)?

Then think about their commercialization. Given that more and more of these biologics will end up being used chronically (after all, Big Pharma wants to replace post-expiration chronic-care small-molecule drugs and most acute-care biologics won’t fill their revenue shoes).

Suddenly, said the ex-research boss, the number of patients on large molecules will dramatically increase the likelihood that unforeseeable signals will show up – like the two PML cases which yanked Tysabri off the market for a time and which would have been impossible for any approval statistics to uncover. At least with small molecules, we’ve got the tests for the likely toxicities, allowing us to shoot compounds in the head before they ever get developed. So with biologics: what signals are companies setting themselves up to look for?

Now let’s talk pricing and patents. Our reading of the meeting’s consensus opinion: BIO made a colossal mistake in stalling a pathway to approval for follow-on biologics, pulled by the nose—accused a variety of meeting attendees--by its richest members (Amgen, Genentech, Biogen Idec, J&J) while ignoring its smaller members. A panel on Washington matters was utterly dominated by the subject, with most of the audience (or at least the many in the audience who voiced their displeasure) apparently convinced that the biotech industry had thrown away its political white hat in favor of the guise of intransigent profiteers.

The political chance lost: a Republican majority which could have at least passed a bill reasonably attractive to biologics innovators while allowing in lower-priced competition. Now it’s payback time: a Democratic majority, more closely tied to a few large-ish generics players, heel-dragging for a bill with relatively minimal exclusivity provisions, speculated attendees.

We'll have more to say about the retreat once we’ve been to the gym to repent our hedonism.

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