JPM16: An unprecedented cancer cure 'MoonShot,' Anthem threatens Express Scripts breakup

The JPMorgan Healthcare Conference and Biotech Showcase 2016 is barreling forward here in San Francisco, and several truly ambitious efforts have been unveiled—including one that received a presidential lift in Barack Obama's final State of the Union on Tuesday night.

A nationwide cancer cure effort forges an unprecedented biopharma research pact

On Wednesday, Los Angeles billionaire and biotech CEO Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong will host what he's dubbed a fireside chat on the Cancer MoonShot 2020 initiative. The ambitious project, one portion of which aims to "design, initiate, and complete randomized clinical trials at all stages of cancer in up to 20 tumor types in as many as 20,000 patients in multiple phase 1 to 3 trials by year 2020," is actually the brain child of Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden has personal—and recent—experience with the scourge. Last year, his adult son and former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden died of brain cancer. And the vice president proceeded to say while declaring that he would not pursue the Democratic nomination for president last year that, "if I could have been anything, I would have wanted to be the president that ended cancer."

Enter the National Immunotherapy Coalition (NIC), a cross-industry research conglomerate comprised of pharma giants such as Merck and GlaxoSmithKline; biotechs like Amgen, Celgene, and Soon-Shiong's NantWorks (among many others); and academic institutes such as MD Anderson that was formed after Biden pitched the initial framework during a meeting with biopharma and regulatory leaders in December.

The ambitious 20,000-patient project, dubbed the QUILT program, will involve the deployment of clinical trials that combine a library of more than 60 cancer immunotherapeis (both approved and in-development) in up to 20 types of cancer, including brain, breast, blood, lung, and pancreatic cancers. The NIC will allow open access to this arsenal of therapies for the purposes of pursuing lasting remission in cancer patients through phase I and phase II studies.

The effort received a particularly high-level shoutout on Tuesday night as President Obama pitched the MoonShot during his final State of the Union Address.

"Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer," said Obama, whose administration has also launched the Precision Medicine Initiative, during the address.

"Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of mission control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

Strikingly, at least one payer is also getting in on the collaboration: Independence Blue Cross, which said it will cover patient costs for the next-gen sequencing which will be at the heart of the research."At Independence Blue Cross, we are proud to be the first major insurer offering reimbursement to our members for this next generation whole genome sequencing," said Independence CEO Daniel J. Hilferty. "We are committed to bringing state-of-the-art advances in oncology care to our members and making care accessible and affordable." 

Soon-Shiong said that the coalition will try to get other insurers, including the umbrella Blue Cross organization, on board with the project, too.

This will be one of the biggest stories to watch over the next 3-4 years.

Anthem challenges PBM giant Express Scripts over drug savings

Insurance giant Anthem's CEO called out benefits manager Express Scripts for not passing on sufficient savings from negotiating price discounts from drugmakers on Tuesday. And Joseph Swedish went so far as to threaten a breakup with the PBM, which services the prescription drug benefits portion of Anthem members' plans.

"We are entitled to improved pharmaceutical pricing that equates to an annual value capture of more than $3 billion," said Swedish during an investor presentation. "To be clear, this is the amount by which we would be overpaying for pharmaceuticals on an annual basis."

Express Scripts had a very different take on the matter, retorting that the company has "acted in good faith" and that "Anthem is not entiteld to $3 billion" or any amount of precise mandated savings as part of the two firms' agreement.

Still, if Anthem does wind up ditching its partnership with Scripts, that would be a huge blow the PBM's business and would likely catapult CVS Health into the top spot for U.S. benefits managers.

Anthem's threat also did seem to spook investors a bit. Express Scripts shares were down more than 6% in Wednesday morning trading.