Remarks from Paul Hastings, CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics and Chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), as prepared for delivery at the BIO International Convention on Wednesday, June 15, 2022:
Together again. I mean, can you believe it? Face to face, thanks to the power of biotechnology. Our member companies, large and small, have done the impossible, creating vaccines faster than ever before, with the highest stakes in a century for global health.
We’ll never know how many millions of lives we’ve saved in this pandemic because so many biotech companies worked together so tirelessly. To BIO members Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead, Regeneron, Eli Lilly, Vir, GSK, Merck, Xencor, and Novavax, whose innovations saved lives and – in many countries – contained a deadly plague in record time, we say, “Thank you.”
ICYMI: BIO’s Chair @phastings14 with @nkartatx kicked off Wednesday’s #BIO2022 keynote by highlighting the important life-saving work of the #biotech sector since we last met in-person. pic.twitter.com/RxnRmcZDoE
— I Am Biotech (@IAmBiotech) June 15, 2022
‘Two days later, Moderna’s scientists had the vaccine designed’
We still wonder sometimes if the world understands the enormity of what transpired in those early months of 2020. It’s like something you’d read in a Hollywood script – only science NON-fiction. On January 11, while the world slept, the Chinese government put the genetic sequence of SARS-Cov-2 online. Moderna scientists, working together with the NIH, designed the vaccine, literally, on their computers. They didn’t have access to the virus itself yet, but they had something even more important: its genetic code.
Two days later, Moderna’s scientists had the vaccine designed. Talk about next-generation biotech. They decoded and neutralized a highly pathogenic, novel virus before ever putting it under a microscope. If our industry can do that – and get shots in arms in just one year’s time – then there’s truly no limit to what we can accomplish.
I remember well those surreal, early days. At our company, Nkarta, sanitation crews came through to wipe down the door handles in our building, inside and out, every single hour. We socially distanced our researchers in our labs. And we fought to designate our industry’s scientists what they are – the ultimate essential workers. And it’s our responsibility to keep them safe.
At Nkarta, we weren’t working on COVID-19 medicines. We were working on a breakthrough to utilize the body’s own natural killer cells to defeat cancer. Our vision is to bring cell therapy out of the ICU and into the community setting, dramatically expanding access. Biotech companies across our industry found a way to keep going. Pause our research? Impossible. Biotech innovation never stops.
‘Biotech companies are poised to answer this call’
Yet, today, in the cruelest of ironies, the young companies at the vanguard of a revolution in medical research are fighting for their own lives. Biotech is bleeding. Hundreds of small and emerging biotechs are starved for capital and struggling to survive – a victim of the emerging post-pandemic world that our industry made possible. Venture funding is down 60 percent. Hundreds of promising companies are staring into the financial abyss, facing the prospect of running out of cash in a couple of years. The global economic shocks of the COVID-19 recovery, the uncertainty, the volatility, the inflation, the war in Ukraine…these factors are conspiring to cause retrenchment and reinvestment into less risky ventures.
Ninety-six percent of our clinical trials don’t reach their desired endpoint. That’s why, in this bear market, even good data can lead to selloffs and stock drops. Yet, recently at Nkarta, we were fortunate enough to experience a trifecta: two cell therapy candidates simultaneously declared themselves with positive early-stage readouts, showing complete responses in blood cancer patients, validating our platform. The preliminary data then led to a stock increase of 140 percent. We were then able to raise $230 million in capital the next day, helping us to keep innovating for patients.
So I just have to believe that all is not lost; investment will come back and innovation will be rewarded, because the fundamentals of our industry are still strong. We’re biotech. We’re survivors, meaningful in purpose, fighting for patients.
The truth is, we’re waking up to a world that looks very different than it did just two and a half years ago – a new normal of infectious disease threats and exposure to exotic pathogens that our immune systems have not evolved to fight. We need to listen to our evolutionary virologists telling us that COVID won’t be the last pandemic we face in our lifetime. Biotech companies are poised to answer this call – and unlock the secrets to conquer so many diseases— but we must have the resources to do so.
Too many in Washington still have the wrong impression about who we are – as if we’re causing, not solving, mankind’s greatest problems. They want to slash the wholesale costs of new medicines, waive our intellectual property protections, and limit our data exclusivity. Politicians who praise our industry for providing COVID-19 vaccines in record time – only to undermine our ecosystem and drain our resources at humanity’s expense – are playing a dangerous game. Governments incentivize and invest in the things they value. What matters more right now than biomedical innovation.
In times like this, honoring our social contract is especially important, in my opinion. Our companies must be allowed to price our medicines for a return on investment, but when patents expire, let those drugs and biologics go generic without undue delay or complication. That’s how we’ll win trust back on Capitol Hill, and we MUST because the world needs us.
We face many threats. As CEOs, our employees, boards and investors want us to use the platform we’ve been given and not stay silent. So, as an individual, I won’t wear a muzzle when limits are being placed on our most basic human rights: civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and the right to democracy itself. In the face of these challenges, it is the job of leaders to stand up and lead!
‘We exist so patients can benefit from us – not the other way around’
I’m currently leading my fifth biotech company. But long before I was a CEO, I was a patient advocate. At 13, I was diagnosed with severe Crohn’s disease. At 19, I traded my colon for a life free of pain, but full of purpose. Working in biotech since 1984, I’ve learned that partnerships with patient advocates are among the most important in our industry. We exist so patients can benefit from us – not the other way around.
If you want to know what motivates me, look no further than Bryan LaRue. He almost died in childbirth. They lost his heart rate, broke his clavicles forcibly removing him from his mother’s womb, and stretched his spinal cord. To this day, he lives with involuntary muscle contractions, tremors, spasms and limited function in his lower extremities.
Bryan was 7 when his Mom found a skeletal muscle relaxant – developed by a company in this room – that relaxed his spasms and helped him unclench his frozen fists. He was 14 when he first attended a summer camp – run by a patient advocacy organization that I chair – for youth with 54 different diagnoses of the bowel and bladder. It was there, at Youth Rally, where he first met another kid just like him. Sterling was also in a wheelchair. One day, they went to visit the rock wall to see what all the fuss was about. Bryan wanted to prove something to Sterling. So he approached Alex, the climbing instructor – a former Youth Rally camper. Now as a baby, Alex was given up by his birth parents to a Chinese orphanage because of a birth defect in his GI tract, but he was adopted by a single Mom here, who never gave up on Alex. Today, he’s a colorectal surgeon.
At the base of the wall, Bryan asked Alex if he’d help him make it up a couple rungs. The wall was, after all, a telephone pole and a half high. What happened in the next few minutes, Bryan will tell you, was the foundation of everything he has accomplished in his life since: starting his own business, building a Facebook community of 40,000 strong, and landing his current job as VP of Sales at a solar panel company.
The muscle relaxant allowed him to grip the rocks, and Alex positioned Bryan’s feet on the first toehold. With all his might, Bryan pulled with his arms while Alex pushed underneath. Together, grunt by grunt, they began to scale the wall. As they ascended, a group of campers gathered to watch, joined by Uncle Paul, in slack-jawed amazement. When they finally reached the top, drenched in sweat, Bryan looked down and saw his discarded wheelchair and his stunned fellow campers. Then he saw his friend, Sterling, and began to cry. So did I.
This is why we do what we do. If we support one another, keep the faith and never relent as we make that climb against the odds, we will weather this storm, and our potential to create miracles will truly be limitless. Thank you.