We’re only one month into 2017, and yet there have already been a bunch of headlines focused on the healthcare sector.
From the impact Donald Trump will have on the sector to increasing drug pricing (yes, that again), there has already been enough news to suggest that the industry is in for a big 2017.
To get a sense of what else to expect in the year ahead, while at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in early January, we asked healthcare executives to identify the topics they expect to become a part of the national conversation.
Here are seven main topics they said to keep an eye out for:
New Alzheimer’s treatments
2016 was not a banner year for Alzheimer’s drugs in development. There were four flops, including a key late-stage trial for solanezumab, which came out of research on the “amyloid hypothesis,” or the idea that targeting beta amyloid deposits in the brain to clear them out was the way to go about treating the disease.
Right now, there are only four treatments that treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and on average about 99% of all drugs in clinical trials never actually make it to approval.
“We’re praying for an Alzheimer’s breakthrough,” Opiant CEO Roger Crystal told Business Insider. Opiant is a biotech developing treatments for addiction and eating disorders.
There are a handful of key trials that are wrapping up in 2017. If any of those goes well, they could be a step in the right direction.
What Donald Trump will do with healthcare
Drug companies had largely been bracing themselves for a different election result in the US.
When President Donald Trump was elected, biotechnology stocks rose 13.3% by the end of election week, as it was thought that a Clinton victory would have been negative for the sector.
That all took a major turn in January when Trump said at a press conference that drug companies are “getting away with murder,” saying that the US should start bidding on drugs to bring prices down. Pharma CEOs met with Trump on January 31, but Trump’s exact policy plan for drug pricing still appears to be up in the air.
Also up in the air is Trump’s plan for the Affordable Care Act, which would impact drugmakers.
Corporate tax reform
Corporate tax reform was one of the big issues healthcare CEOs brought up during the meeting with the president.
“We’re going to be lowering taxes, we’re going to be getting rid of regulations that are unnecessary,” Trump said.
That could have a huge impact on the pharmaceutical industry. The healthcare sector has seen a number of so-called inversions, where companies merge with a foreign company and switch their tax domicile to a lower-tax jurisdiction in the process.
Though they’ve been around for some time, some executives thought 2017 would be the year that liquid biopsies make it into dinner-table conversations.
Unlike solid-tumor biopsies (where a piece of a tumor is taken out and tested), these “liquid” versions just pick up clues from the blood. They rely on something called “circulating tumor DNA,” or the bits of DNA that are released from dying tumor cells into the bloodstream.
There are a number of companies tackling the liquid biopsy at different stages — including Grail, a startup raising more than $1 billion for its cancer-screening liquid biopsy test. If liquid biopsies start getting used to screen healthy people for the early signs of cancer, that’s likely the moment we’ll all start to hear about them.
In the past few years, cancer immunotherapy, or the idea of harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer, has made a major resurgence.
The big thing in 2017 is watching immunotherapy become more of a standard treatment — alongside chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — rather than just a cutting-edge experimental treatment.
“Chemo makes your hair fall out, immunotherapy cures you,” said Rachel Humphrey, chief medical officer of CytomX, a biotech that’s trying to develop safer ways to give these treatments.
The delicate balance of microbes living inside each of us, collectively called our microbiome, has had a lot of buzz in recent years for potentially being the key to treat a whole host of different ailments.
But in 2016, a failed trial for a microbiome therapy cast a shadow over the feasibility of these treatments. In 2017, we might start to see if that shadow’s warranted, based on other treatments in development.
“I think you see more along the lines of thoughtful approaches to the microbiome,” Scott Brun head of AbbVie Ventures, the drugmaker’s venture arm, said.
Precision medicine becoming more than just a buzzword
Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider
In theory, precision medicine or personalized medicine, makes a lot of sense. Each person is unique, and could require a unique treatment for whatever ails him or her. It’s a concept the Obama administration dedicated a lot of time and money to, but there’s been a lot of skepticism from the medical community about how well it works in practice.
Even so, people in the industry are optimistic about where the area’s going.
“We’re starting to really come to appreciate that not every patient is going to benefit from every drug,” Tom Zioncheck, senior director in business development at Genentech, said.
“Now we’re entering an age where we’ve got a drug not that we think is good for Ms. Smith, it’s made for Ms. Smith,” Neon Therapeutics chief business officer Robert Ang told Business Insider. Neon’s working in the space on developing personalized cancer vaccines, a type of cancer immunotherapy that would go after a person’s specific cancer mutations.