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With its announcement on Thursday that it will acquire biotech bellwether Celgene, Bristol-Myers Squibb has placed a very big bet: that it is worth $74 billion to combine its cancer drugs with Celgene’s.

“We’ve taken our strategic foundation to be the best of biotech and the best of pharma as a company,” Bristol Chairman and Chief Executive Giovanni Caforio told me.


Caforio has been under pressure to set a new course since August 2016, when a big study of Bristol’s cancer immunotherapy, Opdivo, failed to show a benefit in previously untreated patients with non-small cell lung cancer, a particularly lucrative market. Opdivo has remained a huge success, but this gave an opening to rival Merck. In the third quarter of 2018, sales of Opdivo were $1.7 billion, $100 million below those of Merck’s Keytruda. With Merck looking dominant in lung cancer, investors wanted Bristol-Myers Squibb to come up with new sources of growth.

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  • “When one looks broadly at cancer immunotherapy, there are four big areas, he argued: drugs like Opdivo and Keytruda; medicines like Bristol’s Yervoy; medicines that make use of a protein called IL-2, such as one Bristol licensed from Nektar; and cell therapies such as the ones it just acquired in its Celgene buy.”

    That strikes me as an exceedingly arbitrary categorization of IO therapies – salesmanship around the combined BMY / CELG asset base reinforces the notion that this deal is the result of a push for growth at any cost.

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