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Heard it at J.P. Morgan: In Hallways, Meeting Rooms

By BioWorld Staff

SAN FRANCISCO – The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is always fun, frenetic and a little overwhelming. This year was no different – unless you count the ire of innocent tourists and locals who were turned away from conference headquarters at the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Here, enjoy a few parting shots from members of the BioWorld Today staff who covered the biotech industry's annual lollapalooza.

Badges? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges

Actually, attendees of the 30th anniversary J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference did need badges – just to get in the door. For years, the lobby of the Westin St. Francis has been the meeting place du jour for attendees and nonattendees alike. The grandfather clock on the Powell Street side of the lobby is a particularly popular spot for new faces to connect. But a rendezvous under the clock requires visitors to actually step inside the hotel, and this year's beefed-up security – designed to keep out pesky Occupy activists – changed all that.

Registered participants had to follow instructions worthy of a John Le Carre novel: Walk to the Geary Street entrance of the Westin, present a hard copy of this email along with your photo ID and proceed carefully to Tower Salon A – all that just to earn a badge and vinyl tote bag. Those not registered for J.P. Morgan? They were banned from the hotel altogether, forced to seek meeting spots in other hotels, nearby restaurants or the ubiquitous corner Starbucks – though the other venues weren't complaining.

To some, the action seemed to make the invitation-only conference feel even more elite. To others, the action seemed heavy handed and unreasonable, especially when obviously harried business men and women were turned away at the front steps. Inside the hotel, guards were posted at the foot of stairs and elevators. "Could you turn your badge around so I can see your name?" one asked a conference attendee Wednesday afternoon. "You should know my name by now," the suit replied breezily as he started up the stairs, likely for the umpteenth time.

The ultimate irony? For all the security, nary a protester was in sight all week.

Where Are You Now?

While traversing the hallways of the Westin – or just the streets around Union Square – nearly everyone runs into a few acquaintances or former colleagues. "I love this conference," one attendee gushed on the phone Tuesday morning while standing in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. "Everywhere you turn you see a familiar face."

But, with all the layoffs, reorganizations and bankruptcies – not to mention M&A activity – in biotech over the past couple of years, greetings overheard this year tended to start with same question: "Hey, where are you now?"

The 'Balkanization' of Disease Subsets

Anyone who has followed the biotech sector over the past decade knows the pressure for drug developers to create targeted, if not personalized medicines. In oncology, in particular, the presence of specific mutations or expression of specific antigens has split cancer indications into multiple subpopulations – or what Clovis Oncology Inc.'s CEO, Patrick Mahaffey, called the "Balkanization" effect.

Clovis is working on a lipid-conjugated form of gemcitabine aimed specifically at pancreatic cancer patients expressing low levels of hENT1. The company, which is banking on a larger group of patients having low rather than high levels of hENT1, had the fortunate timing to have its hypothesis confirmed smack in the middle of J.P. Morgan. In its ongoing pivotal study, about two-thirds of already-screened patients were shown to be hENT1-low, which prompted Mahaffey to comment during a breakout session Tuesday, "If you have to go into the Balkans, you want Serbia, not Montenegro."

The Year of Obesity?

Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. also had good news to share when the company presented Wednesday afternoon – the FDA's acceptance of its resubmitted new drug application for lorcaserin and a $33 million equity financing to move the obesity candidate to the finish line – prompting CEO Jack Lief to invite those assembled in the Colonial Ballroom to "check out our 8-K." (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 12, 2012.)

Arena officials, who plan to file a marketing authorization application for lorcaserin in Europe during the first half of this year, said during their breakout session that "we hit the ball out of the park" in addressing the FDA's worries about those pesky mammary tumors that showed up during rat studies. Answering the FDA's queries required a year of additional experiments, and "the sad tale," Lief acknowledged, is that the rest of the company's pipeline has been on hold in the interim.

But Arena – and competitors Vivus Inc. and Orexigen Therapeutics Inc. – may finally be seeing a shift in the FDA's mindset. There was buzz at J.P. Morgan that 2012 "may be the year of obesity." Although some at the agency allegedly see obesity as simply a lifestyle issue, rapidly rising obesity rates – and the attendant health care costs – may be leading the FDA to rethink its position on the risk/reward equation in obesity candidates, according to the chatter.

Those Are the Odds?

To say that developing drugs is a high-risk proposition is an understatement. But, during a Wednesday presentation in the China track, John Oyler, CEO of Chinese firm Beigene Ltd., made a comment that really put that into perspective. While reviewing promising early data from a late-stage melanoma candidate in-licensed from Johnson & Johnson, Oyler stressed that its licensors had a lot of faith in the drug. "J&J believes it has a 55 percent probability of success," he said. Given that nine of 10 drugs that advance to the clinic end as failures, that observation sounds like high praise indeed.

Rise of the Alternative Meetings

Of course, much of the action at J.P. Morgan doesn't actually occur in the hallowed halls of the Westin St. Francis. Of necessity, that was never truer than this year. Partnering meetings, VC confabs and management one-on-ones were convened at every hotel within a four-block radius of Union Square. One major PR firm scheduled more than 250 meetings over three days in four hotel suites – pressing the staff's actual rooms into service, when needed, to accommodate the crush.

This year's Biotech Showcase, held around the corner at the Parc 55 Wyndham, also gained a measure of credibility. Although this meeting emerged in recent years as an alternative for small biotechs that couldn't snag an invite to the big dance, the 2012 showcase featured not only public and private biotech presentations and luncheon plenaries, but also full-day workshops with credible speakers on compelling topics such as regenerative medicine, alternative financing options and strategies for working with federal regulators – though some groused that the food was better at the Westin.

The Parties Didn't Disappoint, Either

Start with a hopping San Francisco nightlife and add an assortment of organizers seeking an annual opportunity to impress, and you have the ingredients for a spectacular mix of evening soirees.

Several Monday night events featured the college Bowl Championship Series game; hosts obviously knew their SEC fans well. Other venues included some of the neighborhood's toniest bars and restaurants as well as the striking Weinstein Gallery on Geary Street – which, sadly, is losing its lease.

For four days, the biotech industry didn't sleep – and, we hope, more than a few deals got done.

Then the red carpet was rolled up for another year and the crisp gray suits were swapped for comfortable jeans as 8,000-plus headed back to the airports and freeways.

See you again next January in the City by the Bay.