I realize it’s more common than in the past, but it still seemed strange last week to see Mayo’s name in the type of news release that’s used to communicate news to Wall Street.
You might have noticed the front-page story last week about Mayo getting into the drug business. The clinic is partnering with two other firms to form a drug development company called Vitesse Biologics, a company created to develop protein-based therapies for cancer, immunology and blood diseases.
As part of the deal, Mayo will share product status emails with a venture capital-owned drug development firm in South San Francisco — a partner literally named Velocity Pharmaceutical Development, whose motto is "We Build Drugs, Not Companies" — and the blood products giant Baxter.
At the bottom of the news release, Baxter listed a special phone number for investors wanting to know more. Something told me I would get the clearest picture of the deal by calling that line, though as a working journalist, my only investments are in violin lessons for my daughter.
There weren’t many news stories last week that tried to explain what this deal is about, which means the story was either a) just another day in the biotech era, or b) encased in coded language that only the dealmakers seem to under- stand.
Mayo has licensed hundreds of scientific discoveries to the private sector and Mayo Medical Ventures has even played banker to small companies who build out its research. Mayo’s science and lab work has long since become commercialized, in other words. But this deal seemed to take Mayo a step closer to being a cog in a billion-dollar industry, betting on a promising but extraordinarily expensive new class of drugs. As Mayo hematologist S. Vincent Rajkumar recently wrote in a Mayo Clinic Proceedings article titled, "Why Are Cancer Drugs So Expensive in the United States, and What Are the Solutions," the problem rests in part on "the demands for high profits" in a for-profit health care system.
So whether it’s commonplace or not, this is a deal that ties together a pair of for-profit entities and a prestigious medical center trying to offer something to its patients. To those of us in the cheap seats, it’s hard not to imagine this as a bit of a Felix Unger and Oscar Madison apartment. (For those too young to know, that’s an "Odd Couple" reference).
Observers say the deal is a victory for efficiency. Mayo contributes its access to specialty cancer patients and gains access to promising drugs for those patients. Velocity surveys the drug landscape to make sure research time is well spent, and keeps the trials on schedule. Baxter provides the raw materials of the test drugs themselves. Everybody ends up with royalties if the product takes off.
Let’s hope it works, because unfortunately, most drug trials fail, and the failure rate is climbing the further we get from the day when Americans paid for research through government, and doctors scorned the idea of patents for medicine. The number of new drug approvals per billion dollars spent trying has been halved nearly every decade since the 1950s, according to a 2012 paper in the journal Nature Reviews. I asked the co-author of that paper, a drug R&D analyst at Oxford named Jack Scannell, how we get out of the current bind, one where drug discovery means investors and stock trading and now Mayo scientists, with the drugs that emerge from this system potentially lifesaving but costing too much for patients or the health care system to absorb.
"I think there is something of a golden age in oncology R&D at the moment," Scannell said. "For tomorrow’s drugs," however, "it is a bit like the lottery model. Firms invest in R&D projects knowing they will probably lose, because most projects fail, but hoping that they win big." Scannell says the high price of new specialty therapies is the carrot that keeps money flowing into the system.
It wasn’t always this expensive to test new drugs, when our pills were the product of academic scientists who did not partner with venture capital firms. Thanks to the cash-infused drug marketplace that now counts Mayo among its partners, simply manufacturing the antibodies of the sort to be tested in the Vitesse deal are said to cost as much as $10 million per trial.
Should engineered antibodies for a few hundred patients really cost $10 million? Is someone right now sailing an 80-foot yacht in the Mediterranean called Engineered Antibody?
As reputable as they may be, nothing about Mayo’s new private sector partners make that seem out of the ordinary.
Good Health is health reporter Paul Scott’s weekly column, appearing Mondays. If you have comments or story ideas, call Paul at 507-285-7624 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.