14
Jan
2021

Our Communities, and Biotech, Need Local Journalism

Luke Timmerman, founder & editor, Timmerman Report

National traumas force us out of our comfort zones. They can force us to search, to ask new questions, to think deeper about our world.

This week, my first real journalism job came to mind.

One day, when I expressed surprise to my editor in Madison, Wisconsin that the tiny Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota had won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of a 100-year flood, he said:

“One of the great things about journalism is that you can look at newspapers in all 50 states, and there are editors there who know their communities, know all the elected officials, have institutional memory,” he told me. “Every one of these places has the potential, under the right circumstances, to win a Pulitzer.”

“Then I guess we just need a natural disaster to hit Madison,” I joked.

Twenty years later, I see this conversation in a different light. My editor was telling me something important. Maybe more important than he and I realized at the time.

The newspaper industry was the primary fact-gathering engine of American journalism and the town hall for political discourse. Newspapers were the thing, for more than 200 years, that set the agenda for conversations across the country. These community organs, in the second half of the 20th century, were especially profitable and stable. Radio, TV, and everyone else followed the lead.

Newspapers often had local owners and publishers with backbones, editors who had seen and heard it all, and a small group of tireless young reporters working for starvation wages (watch “Spotlight” with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo to get a feel).

Newspapers were a carefully curated bundle of news, information you could use, sports, entertainment. The content was meant to appeal at least a little to everyone in the community – there’d be something from last night’s city council meeting, high school sports recaps, and human-interest features about the local Girl Scout troop fundraiser. There was the crime blotter, the weather, and what our US Senator might have said about dairy policy that week.

Occasionally, we would dig up a scandal about a crooked local politician. The ensuing outrage would force change, like a resignation.

Maybe even more important than what we did publish was what we chose NOT to publish. When a neo-Nazi skinhead or some other extremist called to complain, or wrote a racist letter to the editor, we tossed that in the trash. Before we did, we might turn to a colleague and say “can you believe this guy?”

Seven days a week, with metronomic consistency and community sensibility, the family newspaper arrived on the doorstep.

As a newspaper reporter, I got to learn about the community, and on better days, hopefully helped the community better understand itself. In the newsroom, we kept ourselves and our viewpoints out of our copy. It was our job to gather the facts, lay them out in the proper context, and let the readers decide. We weren’t in the entertainment business. We were trying to make the important stuff interesting to read for a busy reader who might give us 5-10 minutes out of their day.

Today, local newspapers are dead, or shells of their former selves. Most of the jobs are gone. The Internet enabled a great “unbundling.” For most surviving newspapers, ownership is distant, usually some nameless private equity firm fixated on cost-cutting. Communities now get hardly any real news about what’s happening close to home. If they do, it’s not always from people committed to traditional standards of fairness and accuracy.

There’s no more town square, no campfire to sit around and tell each other stories.

It would be a mistake, of course, to indulge in too much sepia-toned nostalgia about local newspapers. These newspapers sometimes would write in hackneyed cliches, show bad judgment, or blow things out of proportion on slow news days. They’d make errors. Sometimes the editorial board would endorse a certain politician, and readers would seethe. Old white men were in charge, and they were too often blind to racial and ethnic injustices.

Imperfect as these outlets were, they were bound by facts and ethics and professional codes of judgment. They were staffed by people who loved their communities.  

Now, instead of relying on local newspaper bundles, news has been both nationalized and fragmented into ever-narrower niches. There are bright spots on today’s Internet, but a serious information seeker has to do a lot of work to find the signal and avoid the noise.

There’s no mystery tens of millions of Americans believe false conspiracies such as QAnon, or that the Presidential election was stolen.

The Internet, over the past 20 years, has come to be dominated by outrage, cable TV infotainment distractions, and partisan rat poison that’s been algorithmically jackhammered into our minds. Opportunists know this, and have seized the advantage. In a pandemic, when millions of people are isolated and genuinely stressed, it adds up to a frightening level of mass radicalization.

As we come to terms with what we have wrought, I’d like to try to think big and bold about better ideas for how we communicate. Local communities, long considered an afterthought, deserve to be brought back in to the conversation.

Biotech, this includes you. Biotech is a thriving industry in the US for many reasons. Strong local communities are one reason. This industry has taken root in local clusters like Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Raleigh-Durham, Washington DC, New York / New Jersey.

Local newspapers are integral parts of those communities. In the early days of biotech – the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, San Diego Union-Tribune among others – helped educate the public and tell the stories of this nascent industry. First-generation executives running companies like Genentech, Amgen, Biogen and Genzyme understood this. They read, and spoke with, their hometown papers in addition to the financial press. Their employees read these papers, and so did elected officials that biotech companies wanted to keep in touch with. (I remember ex-Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer calling my cell phone more than once to complain about my coverage in The Seattle Times).

We all live in local communities, and benefit from local investments. Subscribing to your local newspaper is one such small investment.

If a newspaper is too old-school for you, there is a new generation of online outlets – text, audio, and sometimes video. The important thing is to support outlets committed to traditional values of the journalism craft. There’s The Frisc and KQED in San Francisco, Crosscut and KUOW in Seattle, and the Texas Tribune, to name a few. ProPublica, the investigative journalism outlet, is expanding into regional communities. Each place does good work that could help stitch back together the bonds that hold our communities together. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s worth doing.

If we don’t get to work on repairing our democracy, our institutions, our social bonds, our communities, then we all have a lot to lose.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson on press freedom. It’s about more than just free speech, and more than just newspapers. The newspaper itself isn’t the important part — it’s the need for a shared set of facts, a shared reality, from which citizens could educate themselves to hold government accountable and make wise decisions in a representative democracy.

Jefferson said:

“The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Responding to Insurrection

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization said it would pause all political giving, as many trade groups have done, in the wake of the insurrection against Congress incited by President Trump. BIO’s statement  noted that the industry is based in science, and that “it is very concerning that some elected leaders last week chose to ignore facts and embrace widely discredited conspiracies.” It’s a start. I want to see the industry issue a permanent ban against funding members of Congress that supported the violent mob insurrection.

Financings

The Rockefeller Foundation said it made a $30 million advance market commitment to support COVID-19 testing to help safely reopen communities. The deal enables Thermo Fisher Scientific to move buy necessary supplies, in $30 million chunks at time, with guaranteed demand.

South San Francisco-based DiCE Molecules raised $80 million in a Series C financing led by RA Capital. The company is developing small molecule drugs based on a DNA-encoded library. The lead program is a first-in-class attempt at an oral small-molecule aimed at IL-17, an inflammatory cytokine that’s been well-validated by injectable biologic drugs for psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

Baltimore-based Delfi Diagnostics raised $100 million in a Series A financing to advance a pan-cancer early detection test. OrbiMed led.

Boston-based Atalanta Therapeutics started up with $110 million to develop RNA interference therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. The company said it has partnerships with Biogen and Genentech. Alicia Secor is the CEO.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vedanta Biosciences, the microbiome therapeutics company, secured a $25 million investment from Pfizer. The company plans to use the cash to advance a Phase II study of a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Generation Bio raised $225 million in a stock offering at $24.50 a share. The company is working on non-viral delivery of gene therapy. (TR coverage, August 2020).

Boston-based Valo Health raised $190 million in a Series B financing led by Public Sector Pension Investment Board. It’s using machine learning for drug discovery.

New York-based Lexeo Therapeutics, a gene therapy developer, raised $85 million in a Series A financing co-led by Longitude Capital and Omega Funds.

San Francisco-based Earli raised $40 million in a Series A financing to advance its platform for early cancer detection. Khosla Ventures led.

Seattle-based Altpep raised $23 million in a Series A financing led by Matrix Capital Management. It’s working on treating amyloid disorders. David Goel of Matrix, Joel Marcus of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, and Chad Robins of Adaptive Biotechnologies are on the board of directors.

Waltham, Mass.-based Mana Therapeutics said it raised a $35 million Series A financing to develop off-the-shelf allogeneic cell therapies for cancer. Cobro Ventures and Lightchain Capital co-led.

Seattle-based Sana Biotechnology, the cell therapy company led by former Juno Therapeutics executive Steve Harr, filed an S-1 prospectus to raise up to $150 million in an IPO.

Monmouth Junction, NJ-based Elucida Oncology raised $44 million in a Series A-1 financing.

Red Bank, NJ-based Provention Bio raised $100 million in a stock offering at $16 a share to continue work on immune-mediated diseases.

Chatham, NJ-based Tonix Pharmaceuticals raised $40 million in a registered direct offering.

Deals

Tarrytown, NY-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said the US government agreed to purchase up to 1.25 million more doses of its therapeutic antibody cocktail for non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The deal is worth up to $2.625 billion.

Beijing and Cambridge, Mass.-based BeiGene formed a partnership with Novartis to further develop and commercialize a PD-1-directed antibody therapy for cancer. BeiGene is getting $650 million upfront.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Bluebird Bio said it will spin off its oncology business into a new company, while the original company will focus on severe genetic diseases. Nick Leschly will be CEO of the oncology newco, and executive chairman of Bluebird Bio.

Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies, which does sequencing of immune system B and T cells for diagnostic and therapeutic applications, struck a deal with AstraZeneca that combines the company’s sequencing and mapping capabilities to map T-cell receptors (TCRs) to antigens, across AstraZeneca’s oncology portfolio. Adaptive didn’t disclose specific financials, but said it will receive quarterly payments plus sequencing and data mapping fees.

Cambridge, Mass.-based KSQ Therapeutics agreed to work with Takeda on novel immuno-oncology therapies. KSQ stands to collect up to $100 million in upfront and preclinical milestones. (See TR coverage of KSQ, October 2017).

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Evoq Therapeutics formed a deal with Amgen to work on autoimmune therapies. The little company stands to collect up to $240 million in upfront and milestone payments.

Germany-based Boehringer Ingelheim struck a deal with Enara Bio, a UK-based company working on cancer antigen discovery. The upfront payment was undisclosed, but Enara said it stands to collect up to 876 million Euros in milestone payments.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen, the developer of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, agreed to team up with Apple to use the Apple Watch and iPhone to collect digital biomarker data on cognitive performance for a multi-year observational study starting in 2021.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Grail, the developer of a methylation-based test for early detection of cancer, formed collaborations with Amgen, AstraZeneca, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. These deals are focused on detecting Minimal Residual Disease, in patients who have been treated for cancer, and might have lingering malignancies not easily seen with other measurements. Separately, Grail said it plans to introduce its Galleri early-detection test before the end of June.

The Broad Institute, Verily and Microsoft said they are working together to expand Terra, a platform the Broad and Verily have been working on for some time, and which they described as “secure, scalable, open-source platform for biomedical researchers to access data, run analysis tools and collaborate.” The new partnership brings Microsoft’s cloud, data and AI technologies to the table.

Vaccines
  • Biden Will Release Nearly All Vaccine Doses, in Break With Trump Administration that Had Been Holding Back 2nd CNN. Jan. 8. (Sara Murray)
  • J&J Single-Dose Vaccine Candidate Phase I/II Data Published in New England Journal of Medicine. Jan. 13. (NEJM article and J&J statement).
  • Moderna Says it Believes It Can Update its Vaccine Without a Big New Trial. Tech Review. Jan. 13. (Antonio Regalado)
  • Messenger RNA Vaccines Against SARS-CoV-2. Cell. Jan. 13. (Eric Topol)
Science
  • Immune determinants of COVID-19 disease presentation and severity. Nature Medicine. Jan. 13. (Peter Broddin)
  • Neuroinvasion of SARS-CoV-2 in human and mouse brain. Journal of Experimental Medicine. Jan. 12. (Eric Song et al)
Rebuilding
  • The CDC was damaged by marginalization and politicization. This is how Biden can fix it. NBC News. Jan. 14. (Four former CDC directors)
  • As CDC Director, I’ll Tell You the Truth. NYT. Jan. 11. (Rochelle Walensky)
The Viral Evolution Story
  • Pfizer / BioNTech Vaccine Appears Effective Against Mutation in New Variants. Jan. 8. (Reuters)
  • Still going to the grocery store? With new variants spreading, it’s probably time to stop. Jan. 14. Vox. (Julia Belluz)
  • We lost to SARS-CoV-2 in 2020. We Can Defeat B117 in 2021. STAT. Jan. 9. (Kevin Esvelt and Marc Lipsitch)
  • Why Epidemiologists Are So Worried About the New Variants. Vox. Jan. 8. (Brian Resnick)
  • Germany Plays Catch-Up in Bid to Monitor Coronavirus Mutations. Reuters. Jan. 14. (Ludwig Burger)
  • How Worried Should We Be About SARS-CoV-2 Mutations? Timmerman Report. Jan. 14. (Mara Aspinall)
  • Genomic characterization of an emergent SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Manaus: preliminary findings. Virological.org. Jan. 12. (Nuno Faria et al CADDE Genomic Network)
SARS-CoV-2 Features
  • After aborted attempt, sensitive WHO mission to study pandemic origins is on its way to China. Science. Jan. 13. (Kai Kupferschmidt)
  • COVID Reinfections Are Unusual, But Can Still Help Spread the Virus. Nature. Jan. 14. (Heidi Ledford)
Science Features
  • An Algorithm May Soon Help People Make Babies. Future Human. Jan. 13. (Emily Mullin)
  • COVID Measures Also Suppress Flu – For Now. Science. Jan. 15. (Kelly Servick)
Our Shared Humanity
Biotech Strategy
Personnel File

Janet Woodcock, the veteran FDA leader, is expected to be named acting FDA commissioner in the Biden Administration. Joshua Sharfstein is reportedly a leading contender for the top job, according to BioCentury.

Moncef Slaoui, the leader of Operation Warp Speed, is resigning. He will reportedly be available as a consultant to the Biden Administration for about four weeks.

Andy Slavitt, the former acting CMS director under President Obama, will join the Biden Administration as a COVID-19 advisor. He’s been the host of the excellent “In the Bubble” podcast this year.

A former Merck cancer researcher was arrested and charged in federal court with theft of trade secrets.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Beam Therapeutics, the DNA base editing company, named Kate Walsh to its board of directors.

Stamford, Conn.-based Sema4 hired William Oh as chief medical science officer. He was most recently Chief of the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Mount Sinai Health System and Deputy Director of The Tisch Cancer Institute.

Data That Mattered

BioMarin said it met all primary and secondary endpoints in a Phase III study of its gene therapy for hemophilia A, evaluated for one year. The FDA has held up that product candidate, asking for more follow-up data.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Verve Therapeutics, the developer of gene editing therapies for cardiovascular disease, released updated data from non-human primates which said its experimental therapy was able to reduce LDL-cholesterol levels for six months after a single infusion. The treatment targets the PCSK9 gene, in a lipid nanoparticle delivery package. (Learn more in a few weeks, as CEO Sek Kathiresan is an upcoming guest on The Long Run podcast).

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