This past June, Philadelphia hosted the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s 2019 BIO International Convention. The event, which touts itself the “world’s largest meeting for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries,” delivered on its promise, hosting more than 17,000 attendees and 1,800 exhibitors (now if only Philly had enough hotel rooms to accommodate).
With this conference, BIO affirmed its commitment to lead an industry-wide effort to promote inclusion and diversity. The event had a truly global feel, with the show floor organized by country, indicated by large banners above. The goal was to create an environment where diverse professionals could collaborate, and where different ideas and approaches were welcomed. This fueled the conference’s theme of “it starts with one,” creating an event where the daily efforts of attendees were celebrated.
New chair, new direction
The event featured an address from BIO’s new chair, Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics. “Our covenant requires that we take the risks necessary and aspire to find and develop the best possible medicines,” said Levin to a packed room.
The newly elected leader indicated that his tenure will bring a focus on drug development and policies related to rare diseases — an area familiar to Ovid, a biopharma company committed to developing treatments for people with rare neurological disorders. An estimated 30 million Americans live with rare diseases — with 90 percent of those lacking an FDA-approved treatment. The “risk” is that rare disease drugs pose broad challenges in terms of clinical research, patient recruitment, and long development timelines.
Calling out bad actors
Levin was among several speakers who addressed the drug pricing issue. Levin spoke about industry “bad actors” who “inflate prices because they can — without any change in value.” Levin proposed more frank and honest conversations with patients, saying pharma has a responsibility to “call out and distance ourselves from bad actors in our industry who taint us all.” (Read more about pharma's reputation crisis here)
The same sentiments were echoed by Merck CEO, Ken Frazier. “The benefits from our medicines are tremendous but the cost issue needs to be solved,” said Frazier.
Frazier said his role as a leader is to optimize both patient access and profits, not to maximize profits. “No company just driven to maximize profit will last — you have to have a higher purpose,” said Frazier.
Riding the innovation wave
Gene therapies remain top-of-mind in biopharma as the industry transitions the field from experimental to commercial — and there was no shortage of buzz around the topic at BIO 2019. While only a handful of gene therapies have received a regulatory nod in the U.S., agency leaders estimated that by 2025, the FDA will be approving 10-20 new cell and gene therapy products per year. During his BIO fireside chat, Frazier emphasized Merck’s strong interest in gene therapy, calling it the “next wave in innovation.”
In recent news, Pfizer announced that is will be spending $500 million on a manufacturing facility in Sanford, North Carolina to position itself as a bigger player in the gene therapy market.
During the conference, optimism was balanced by discussions of the numerous challenges that still remain. A gene therapy panel noted specific issues in gene therapy development and commercialization, such as the need for a different regulatory framework, the shortage of skilled workers and high manufacturing costs.
The topic was appropriate for the conference’s location, since the Philly region is emerging as a hotbed of biotech innovation, with more than two dozen cell and gene therapy companies in the area.