FierceBiotech’s top 10 stories of 2018: CRISPR pressure, bad blood, dropped drugs and more

As we near the end of the year, we like to take a look back over the biggest stories of 2018 and gauge what you, dear reader, found the most interesting, rewarding or controversial.

This year, controversy and negative news, so-called, took precedent, although our biggest story, by a large margin, centered around Bill Gates and a new startup.

Specifically, it was the long-rumored, now official coming-out party for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its new nonprofit biotech startup.

Equipped with plans to build a 120-person team and spend $100 million a year, the Gates Medical Research Institute (MRI) aims to turn drug industry expertise and processes on intractable diseases that kill millions of people annually in low- and middle-income countries.

Second on the list is far less positive as it turned out that, during the BIO International Convention in Boston in the summer, an unaffiliated party featured topless dancers and models painted with the logos of investment firms and biotech companies sponsoring the event, incensing the chairman of the trade group to the point of reconsidering their memberships in the organization.

The event not only follows the #MeToo movement, which has helped raise broader awareness of gender diversity and sexual harassment in the industry, but also an infamous party at the 2016 J.P. Morgan healthcare conference hosted by LifeSci Advisors, which staffed their cocktail party with models to mingle with clients.

And the controversy continues, although this time in the lab as we go right back to the start of the year when a new paper put CRISPR biotechs under pressure when it looked as if the “cutting” element of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique could be under threat from the body’s own immune system.

The paper was later criticized and its impact, though hitting CRISPR biotech stocks on the day (and just ahead of the JPM conference), was softened.

Fourth on the list is a good old pipeline clear-out story, with this one focusing on Pfizer culling diabetes and cancer drugs from its R&D work back in July, coming after it had earlier cut a series of experimental CNS meds. It later licensed a few out and created a new startup to help continue work on a selection of others.

Number five is our book review, from sister site FierceMedTech, on Bad Blood, an account from WSJ journalist John Carreyrou on the rise and dramatic fall of Theranos. Here, Carreyrou unravels its promises to run dozens of tests from just a few drops of blood, profiles its hubris and toxic company culture, and details the physical, practical and personal reasons for its spectacular downfall.

A real horror show for the medtech world, and one that will haunt its investors for many years to come.

At number six, we have another Big Pharma pipeline cull, this time from Swiss major Novartis, which dumped a major 20% of its programs after a big review of its pipeline, and under the guardianship of new CEO Vas Narasimhan.

And at number seven, our first layoff story, with FierceBiotech getting a tip, then being confirmed, when Roivant said it would be cutting some staff and reassigning others to subsidiaries in a notable strategic shift. This came after some major trial setbacks and rejig for Axovant, its CNS biotech, and hires with then some swift ship-jumping among other execs, in what has been a mixed year for the well-funded, but often questioned biotech constellation model.

And yet more controversy as a former GlaxoSmithKline scientist who worked at the U.K.-based Big Pharma’s R&D unit in Philadelphia pled guilty to attempting to steal confidential research and funnel it to conspirators in China back in September. Just a few weeks later, a second former GSK researcher also admitted conspiring to steal trade secrets from the company and pass them on to the same Chinese rival.

On the home stretch with number nine, we go back to Theranos and its disgraced CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who was charged with wire fraud, alongside former COO Sunny Balwani.

And rounding off the top ten, a hit piece from Plainvew LLC, which acknowledges it has a short position in Nektar, that came out against its long-acting interleukin-2 (IL-2) candidate NKTR-214, which it says is “destined to fail,” despite the major backing of partner Bristol-Myers Squibb. 

Check out your top 10 below:

Gates Foundation’s $100M-a-year nonprofit biotech takes flight

Unofficial party at BIO featured dancers plastered with company logos, outraging leadership

New paper could put CRISPR biotechs under pressure

Pfizer drops diabetes and cancer drugs from clinical pipeline

Bad Blood: The book that reads like a late-night biotech horror movie

Novartis dumps 20% of programs following pipeline review

Roivant cuts staff, reassigns others in major reshuffle, as insider decries 'bloodbath'

Former GSK cancer scientist admits attempt to steal trade secrets

Feds charge Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes with wire fraud

Nektar’s long-acting IL-2 NKTR-214 has 'zero value,' claims analyst