Trending at J.P. Morgan’s Healthcare Conference: Technology Convergence
With the COVID pandemic largely behind us, it’s good to see the resumption of in-person meetings.
COVID was itself a catalyst for innovation, but the virtual meeting world can’t quite replicate the serendipitous connections and insights that occur when humans meet face-to-face.
The value of direct contact was much apparent at this year’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.
For 41 years, the conference has been ground zero for bringing together cutting-edge biopharma science and venture capital.
After three years in virtual-only mode, the conference was back in full, real-life, force for 2023.
Blurring R&D Categories
The most striking trend—the convergence and blurring of once very distinct R&D categories.
This is something made possible only when different disciplines and business sectors collaborate, take a step back to congregate and take stock of what they have in common.
Biologists and chemists, and even more noteworthy, IT, device, and data analytics people were all talking. It was evident they have been working with each other on new products.
It is clear that today, new medicines are not just small molecule (pills) or large molecule biologics (injectables).
They are now often married to a device or a test to improve or gauge effectiveness.
Think of biologic insulin—actual human insulin made through biologic processes, not refined pig or cow insulin—delivered via a sophisticated, microcomputer-assisted implantable pump and monitored wirelessly through an algorithm embedded in a patient’s smartphone.
There were a large number of early-stage companies focused on detecting and mining vast amounts of information, with the right tools, in blood.
It has become possible to identify viral, bacterial and fungal infection, and, more importantly, cancer through detection of tiny fragments of a disease agent’s distinct DNA circulating in a patient’s blood.
Such tests are increasingly taking the guesswork out of diagnosis and making treatment far more targeted.
One company, Element Biosciences, announced at the conference a $200-per-person genome sequencing system.
To grasp the impact of this, bear in mind that when the first human genome was successfully sequenced in the early 2000s following a 15-year, $3 billion R&D effort.
When Steve Jobs had his genome sequenced in 2011, he paid $100,000.
The value of decoding the map of a person’s genes—in a sense, the instruction manual for what makes each of us work (and not work)—at low cost is extraordinary.
Such data, in conjunction with CRISPR gene editing technology, will allow scientists to cut out defective genes and splice in healthy replacements.
These advances form the foundation for an array of companies working on cures and treatments for diseases involving gene defects, like cancer and cystic fibrosis.
The use of genomic and many other sources of big data was also apparent in the payer/insurance and hospital worlds.
There was much discussion at the conference about CVS Health’s potential acquisition of primary care provider Oak Street Health.
Overall healthcare costs have risen dramatically in the past 30 years—from $718.7 billion to $4.26 trillion.
It’s clear all the players in the system, like CVS and Oak Street, are searching for ways to bring efficiencies to services and products.
Hospitals are working to use vast amounts of data now available to distinguish between services that are “routine, repeatable, and rules-based”—that are in some sense ripe for commoditization—from more complex, higher margin care.
Payers are also looking to primary care as a means to grow their customer base and the services they can offer.
Can Regulators Keep Pace?
The phenomenon of big mergers in the payer and hospital sectors contrasted with what’s happening in the biopharma world.
There, huge and complex mergers and acquisitions have given way to much more targeted purchases.
Rather than whole companies or divisions being swallowed up in a single deal, the trend apparent at the J.P. Morgan conference is now about identifying and purchasing a complementary product or promising new compound.
In terms of new cures and therapies for patients, the window into the future that was opened at the conference was bright.
If there was any cloud on the horizon it would be the ability of regulators to keep up with the science and understand how once very distinct technologies and categories of R&D have converged.
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