Taking direction from the White House’s recent and ongoing actions towards drug pricing, Congress has begun its latest investigation into prescription drug pricing. It starts with letters sent to 12 companies with products Congress views as either too costly or too price-hiked. As you might expect, that list is filled with blockbusters. Like America used to be. While the list is filled with pharma household names, three names you won’t see on the list—Amgen, Merck, and Gilead—were recently lauded by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for curbing drug prices. So maybe some progress is being made? The House Oversight Committee will hold hearings on Jan. 29 for experts and patients to weigh in, but no word on whether execs will be expected to make an appearance.
British pharmaceutical giant GSK had a pretty crazy news day on Monday, announcing two massive deals. First, the money going out: GSK will acquire the oncology biopharma company Tesaro for $5.1B. This deal adds Tesaro’s Zejula to the GSK portfolio, which will give it a foothold to fight AstraZeneca, Merck and Clovis Oncology in the PARP inhibitor market. That probably gives Clovis a big ol’ target on its back saying “Acquire me!” GSK should have enough cash to cover the deal after its other big Monday announcement where the company announced it will be divesting its healthcare nutrition business to Unilever for a cool $4B. GSK and its nutrition products had a good run, but sounds like someone didn’t drink their Horlicks and their relationship got tired.
Is science data or is data science? Riddle me this. Speaking at the recent Nordic Life Science Days, Richa Wilson, Associate Director, Digital and Personalized Healthcare at Roche indicated “data will continue to evolve from clinical trials and registries and in the future from real-time and linked data. There was ~150 exabytes health data in 2015 and in 2020 it’s expected to grow to 2300 exabytes, mainly from digital health apps and hospital scans. Roche recently purchased Foundation Medicine and is working on open-sourcing health information. And just last week, Accenture, Merck, and Amazon announced the launch of a research platform to drive innovation in drug discovery and scientific research. The cloud-based informatics platform enables life sciences researchers and informatics professionals to quickly aggregate, access and analyze research data from multiple applications. Fine, it’s probably just Excel with a slick GUI. Just kidding.
Richard O’Rourke, an analytical chemist for Merck, was spotted by a co-worker pilfering poison. Merck would probably like us to add “former” analytical chemist. Merck alerted authorities and, somehow, O’Rourke learned of the investigation. So, what does he do? He doubles down on his new life as an up-and-coming criminal by dumping the cyanide into a storm drain. You know, the place that ultimately leads to our water supply. This follow-on stunt earned him a charge of “causing or risking catastrophe,” which carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years. What would a nice fella like O’Rourke want with cyanide anyway? He claims he wanted to use it to kill rodents. Splinter would not be pleased.
Replacing President Trump’s initial pick to lead the US Health and Human Services department is recent Eli Lilly alum Alex Azar. Trump expects that experience will give him a good grip on how to better deliver healthcare and lower drug prices. However, some critics are unhappy about the appointment of a “Big Pharma” figure to run the US’ most well-funded department. Eli Lilly and other large drug makers like Johnson & Johnson and Merck have actually made some advances in drug pricing transparency recently. Earlier in 2017 they released high-level reports explaining price hikes, and shifted the blame for high healthcare costs to other players like PBMs. However, these too were criticized for not being granular enough. Well, you can’t please everyone.
While some drug brands are turning to celebrity endorsers to give their advertising efforts a boost, Merck has gone the other way in an advertisement for their new immuno-oncology drug, Keytruda. Meet Donna, a patient in Merck’s Keynote-024 drug trial that ultimately led to the drug’s approval. Why might celebs be more appropriate for some conditions than others? Maybe the extraordinarily personal and serious nature of a late-stage cancer diagnosis lends itself to not faking it? It’s probably smarter—and more effective—to have a real patient talking about her actual experiences with advanced non-small cell lung cancer and her treatment than, say, Tiger Woods, who once tried to convince us he drove a super ugly Buick.
Last week, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier was among the first of many business leaders who left the White House’s American Manufacturing Council. The manufacturing heads cited President Trump’s comments following the protests and violence in Charlottesville, VA as the reason for their departure… and it snowballed from there with more CEOs resigning until Trump just dissolved it. Frazier’s presence on the council demonstrated the importance of drug manufacturing to the larger US manufacturing economy, and some lauded him for generating Positive Pharma Press™ by giving up his seat at that table. What’s Frazier up to next? Well according to the president, “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” Ouch, Mr. President.
Amazon Echo users can use voice commands to do all sorts of things. “Alexa, order granola bars.” “Alexa, turn on the lights.” “Alexa, clean the house.” (Just kidding…hey, one can dream, right?) Now Merck & Co. is sponsoring the Alexa Diabetes Challenge in which contestants submitted concepts for using Alexa’s technology for diabetes management. The ideas from the five finalists span from a smart foot scanner, to a coach that responds to patients’ moods, to a nutrition assistant that utilizes machine learning to provide meal recommendations. The winner gets $125k and a whole lot of bragging rights.
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