Biotech - The Cutting Edge: cool stuff from the frontiers of medicine

M&A ramps up. This week we saw two notable M&A deals in the Biotech space (amongst a wider flurry on UK markets), with Big Pharma seeking out late-stage assets to replenish tiring pipelines. We estimate c.US$130bn sales will roll off patent in the next five years from Big Pharma. We also read about the first Parkinson’s biomarker test that might identify early-stage Parkinson’s patients. Lastly, we look at how studying hibernating bears could share valuable insights into blood clots and how we may be able to stop greying hair in the future.

M&A momentum continues. We highlighted previously how Pharma are sitting on c.£132bn cash and that we were expecting further M&A activity. Therefore, we were not surprised this week to see some high profile acquisitions: Merck’s c.US$10.8bn Prometheus acquisition (its lead asset is indicated for ulcerative colitis & crohn's) and GSK’s c.US$2bn Bellus Health acquisition (lead asset indicated for chronic cough). Given that big pharma have a much-discussed patent cliff looming (PHe c.US$130bn sales will roll off over the next five years vs c.US$69m for the five years prior), there is little doubt that pipelines need to be replenished. In our view, this means we have only just scraped the surface for M&A this year. Another encouraging sign for the sector generally is the raise of US$1.35bn for investment in life sciences companies, by venture capital firm Forbion.

Parkinson’s, a biomarker test. A study published in ‘The Lancet Neurology’ has found that SYNTap, a test used to detect levels of alpha-synuclein (a protein that can accumulate in lewy bodies and causes cell death in the brain), has been shown to be able to distinguish between Parkinson’s and non-Parkinson’s individuals 88% of the time. This may just pave the way for a diagnostic test and even allow for intervention before patients present with symptoms.

Bear-ly any clots. Have you ever wondered why bears can hibernate for months on end and have no blood clots, whereas healthy individuals can sit on a plane and end up with a blood clot in a vein (DVT)? The answer, apparently, is heat shock protein 47 (HSP47). Researchers have discovered that hibernating bears’ HSP47 levels are 55x lower vs its non-hibernating levels, with further research on the protein showing platelet aggregation properties (which ultimately causes clotting). This potentially opens up a novel pathway for treatment of blood clots and may prevent the need for blood thinning medications (to prevent blood clots) which often increases the risk of severe bleeding. Additional studies have also shown that one can increase HSP47 levels by simply remaining immobile for an extended period of time: a staycation before a holiday…?

Goodbye greys. Hair shows colour through melanogenesis, a process where melanin (a pigment) is synthesised by melanocyte stem cells (McSCs). A new study reveals McSCs have the ability to move between small compartments in the hair follicle, where it then deposits melanin. However, as we age and our hair goes through endless cycles of shedding and growth, more and more McSC’s end up stuck in something researchers describe as a ‘follicle bulge’. It is here that cell signalling can fail, with McSC’s ultimately failing to produce any pigment. The uncovering of this mechanism means researchers can now study methods that might be able to unjam these stuck McSC’s and subsequently stop those pesky grey hairs. We are not sure the US$23bn hair colouring market should be too worried just yet though…