Novartis’ Jay Bradner bemoans 'redundant investment in the biotech sector' for some cancer R&D

Novartis headquarters
Novartis headquarters. (Wikimedia Commons / Andrew / Flickr)

Jay Bradner, president of Novartis’ Institutes for BioMedical Research, questioned whether billions in cancer research funding was going in the right direction as he pointed out a “flood of fast followers, narrow differentiators and distracting hype” around some new therapies and research.

In what he calls a soapbox moment, Bradner said that cancer is a big evil that, rightly, needs a lot of research dollars thrown at it. However, he says, in a frankness not regularly seen from biopharma, “Our community has invested wrongly.”

He explained: “The denominator of CD19 CART research is massive and not always differentiated. The flood of redundant checkpoint agents is equally jarring. I am inclined to believe that a positive storyline underlies fast-follower research: enthusiasm, passion or an overlooked indication. But I do fear that the commodity market for active cancer drugs that exists today in big pharma has inadvertently fueled redundant investment in the biotech sector, with an opportunity cost to society too high for patients to bear.”

The remedy to this? “We must organize tough targets, always reaching for the highest-hanging fruit: a nuanced insight into synthetic lethality, a new path to intractable protein targets, first selective inhibitors of oncogene-encoding RNA.

“We must pursue medicines with curative intent and develop new agents towards survival benefit, invariably in mechanism-based combinations as they will be used in practice. We must recommit to pre-emptive therapies, that respond to circulating tumor DNA long in advance of the radiographic shadows and threatening symptoms that threaten and take the lives of patients. And we must think and work outside the box, inviting any and all with creative solutions to join in this historic battle against a longstanding enemy.”

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He concluded that while biopharma is not overinvested in cancer medicine, it is “often invested wrongly.”

“These are gut-check moments,” he said, “for both biotech companies pressured for near-term exits by impatient investors and large companies with established R&D efforts.”

This comes half a year after Novartis got approval for its CAR-T med, which is going after blood cancers and could be a real game changer for some with certain forms of the disease. Bradner pointed out that the drug could not have existed without external help, namely the University of Pennsylvania, which helped develop the therapy.

It also has 19 clinical I-O targets, which Bradner implies are differentiated.