Friday Five - This week's key news stories

Will there by an M&A bonanza?

Just four weeks into the new-year and approximately $27 billion has been spent on pharma M&A. This represents the strongest start to a year in deal-making for a decade, reported the Financial Times, and compares to total expenditure of around $77 billion in 2017. Coupled with US tax reform and a recognised onus on Big Pharma companies to replenish their R&D pipelines, recent activity will fuel high expectations for more consolidation in the remainder of 2018.

Celgene all in on CAR-T

Celgene's $9-billion acquisition of the CAR-T specialist Juno Therapeutics may not tick every box for investors, but it is a deal that feels both necessary and inevitable.

This stems partly from an existing collaboration Celgene has with Juno and another co-development agreement it has with bluebird bio; though quite how the bluebird deal stacks up once Juno is integrated into Celgene remains to be seen.

Having cut its long-term sales guidance last year, Celgene needs to bolster its revenue outlook. Whether Juno can deliver on this front remains unclear. Celgene argues that Juno's lead asset - the CAR-T therapy JCAR017, which is in late-stage development for the treatment of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma - could generate peak annual sales of $3 billion, owing to a superior clinical profile to competitor therapies from Novartis and Gilead Sciences. JCAR017 could be approved next year.

The jury is very much out on whether Juno's CAR-Ts will be better than competitors, thus a consensus has quickly formed that this is as much a platform play, fuelled by Celgene management talking up the long-term potential of CAR-T in solid tumours.

Analysis - ViewPoints: Celgene makes its move in CAR-T.

Further reading - ViewPoints: The Novartis CAR-T gang gets back together for Tmunity, with a little help from Gilead

Sanofi gets its deal

If Celgene is betting on a new therapeutic modality to help transform its long-term fortunes, Sanofi's $11.6-billion acquisition of Bioverativ can be viewed as a calculated gamble that evolution of the haemophilia market is going to occur at a slower pace than many expect.

The deal provides Sanofi with steadily growing franchises to treat haemophilia A and B patients and an opportunity to expand distribution of these two products into a number of emerging markets. The pipeline of potential disruptive haemophilia treatments is growing at a rapid pace, however, while Roche's Hemlibra - a potential blockbuster therapy for haemophilia A - was approved in the US late last year.

Analysis - ViewPoints: Sanofi looks to play the short- and long-term game in haemophilia.

Sanofi has argued that the deal strengthens its rare disease focus and will leverage synergies from its Genzyme unit. For better or worse, however, the acquisition of Bioverativ will be viewed through a number of unfavourable lenses; diversification away from diabetes has been a strategic must for Sanofi for some years and the company failed in two earlier pursuits of Medivation and Actelion (acquired by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, respectively). Furthermore, Bioverativ was spun out of Biogen a year ago with the US biotech reportedly unable to sell the business for around $3 billion. 

Q4 earnings under way

Fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off this week with both Johnson & Johnson and Novartis offering the potential of future revenue growth from recent and pending novel drug launches; in the case of the latter, providing incoming CEO Vas Narasimhan a solid platform.

See ViewPoints: Johnson & Johnson looking for growth- but in all the right places? and ViewPoints: Novartis shows the value of being first-in-class

As if to reiterate a hard pivot towards cell and gene therapies, following last year's FDA approval of Kymriah, Novartis also announced this week a deal to in-license Spark Therapeutics' ophthalmologic gene therapy Luxturna in ex-US markets.

Bellwethers Biogen and Celgene reported fourth-quarter/full-year results on Thursday. Biogen did not deliver additional M&A announcements (as some had expected), but acquisitive moves in the neuroscience market should not be ruled out - ViewPoints: The search is already on for Biogen's next growth driver

The physician pulse on Keynote-189

Merck & Co. recently confirmed that the Keynote-189 trial has shown an overall survival benefit in favour of its PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda plus concurrent chemotherapy versus chemotherapy alone, in first-line non-small-cell lung cancer patients.

Full data is due to be presented in the next few months, most likely at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting in April.

We snap-polled US oncologists about their current and potential use of concurrent Keytruda/chemotherapy this week (Merck has already secured FDA approval on a smaller Phase II data set) and feedback indicates that Keynote-189 will be heavily dissected.

Particularly intriguing are the breadth of factors that currently act to deter use of this combination.

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