Updated Aug. 31, 2017 at 6:27 a.m.

Tech wrap: FDA OKs 'living' leukemia drug; Tim Cook's $89.6M pay; Expedia's new CEO; Merck drug debate

Published: 2017-08-30 13:25:00
Updated: 2017-08-31 06:27:39

Bulldog

In today's Bulldog wrapup of life science and technology news:

  • US clears first 'living drug' for tough childhood leukemia
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook reaps $89.6M windfall from long-term deal
  • Expedia's new CEO is its CFO
  • New drug reduces heart attacks, but is that enough?

The details:

  • US clears first 'living drug' for tough childhood leukemia

Opening a new era in cancer care, the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved the first treatment that genetically engineers patients' own blood cells into an army of assassins to seek and destroy childhood leukemia.

The CAR-T cell treatment developed by Novartis Pharmaceuticals and the University of Pennsylvania is the first type of gene therapy to hit the U.S. market — and one in a powerful but expensive wave of custom-made "living drugs" being tested against blood cancers and some other tumors, too.

FDA called the approval historic.

"This is a brand new way of treating cancer," said Dr. Stephan Grupp of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who treated the first child with CAR-T cell therapy — a girl who'd been near death but now is cancer-free for five years and counting. "That's enormously exciting."

Novartis said it would charge $475,000 for the treatment, made from scratch for every patient. But, the company said there would be no charge if the patient didn't show a response within a month.

CAR-T treatment uses gene therapy techniques not to fix disease-causing genes but to turbocharge T cells, immune system soldiers that cancer too often can evade. Researchers filter those cells from a patient's blood, reprogram them to harbor a "chimeric antigen receptor" that zeroes in on cancer, and grow hundreds of millions of copies. Returned to the patient, the revved-up cells can continue multiplying to fight disease for months or years.

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook reaps $89.6M windfall from long-term deal

Apple CEO Tim Cook has collected $89.6 million as part of a 10-year deal that he signed as an incentive to keep the iPhone maker at the forefront of the technology industry after he took over the reins in 2011 from company co-founder Steve Jobs.

The windfall detailed in a Monday regulatory flowed from 560,000 Apple shares sold during the past week.

Cook received half the award because Apple's stock delivered shareholder returns in the top third of the Standard & Poor's 500 index during the past three years. He got the other 280,000 shares for simply staying on the job.

Apple set aside more than 291,000 shares sold for $46.4 million to cover Cook's tax bill.

The stock package awarded to Cook in 2011 was originally valued at $376 million, but is now worth much more because Apple shares have increased by six-fold since he signed the deal.

Cook is still in line to receive 2.94 million shares of Apple stock currently valued at $479 million, based on Tuesday's closing price of $162.91. The ascent has established Apple as the world's most valuable company, thanks largely to the enduring popularity of the iPhone introduced 10 years ago under Jobs' leadership.

As long as he remains CEO, Cook will receive 560,000 shares of stock annually from August 2018 through August 2020. He will then get 1.26 million shares in August 2021 as the final payment under his original CEO contract.

  • Expedia promotes CFO to CEO job

Expedia has named one of its defecting CEO's top lieutenants as its new leader.

The online travel-booking service named Mark Okerstrom as its CEO late Wednesday, the same day that his predecessor, Dara Khosrowshahi, debuted in his new job as CEO of ride-hailing service Uber.

Uber lured Khosrowshahi away from Expedia as a surprise choice to replace its polarizing co-founder Travis Kalanick after a two-month search.

Okerstrom worked closely with Khosrowshahi for much of the past 11 years at Expedia, most recently as the company's chief financial officer.

Expedia Chairman Barry Diller said Okerstrom was the only candidate that the Bellevue, Washington, company considered as CEO since Sunday when Uber offered its top job to Khosrowshahi.

Although he no longer will be an executive, Khosrowshahi will remain on Expedia's board.

  • New drug reduces heart attacks, but is that enough?

So-so results for a new type of cholesterol drug have left Merck in a quandary: Does the company try to bring it to market or scrap it?

A large, long-term study of the drug showed that it prevents heart attacks and reduces the need for heart procedures, while three similar drugs developed by rivals failed. But the drug, anacetrapib, only reduced those complications by 9 percent.

Now Merck, which has spent 13 years and likely hundreds of millions of dollars testing the drug, has to decide whether to spend even more to seek approval from regulators and convince people to buy it in a market full of cholesterol drugs.

The results of the 30,450-patient study were announced Tuesday at a conference of heart specialists in Barcelona, Spain and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that anacetrapib is safe and somewhat effective.

That kind of result is normally enough to seek approval to market a new medicine, especially for heart disease, which is the top killer in many developed countries. Yet even after seeing the results weeks ago, Merck says its executives are still consulting with medical experts and regulators on whether to go through the costly process of applying for approval.

Analyst Steve Brozak, president of WBB Securities, predicts Merck will do so, given anacetrapib's safety, the huge pool of potential patients and all the resources Merck has poured into the drug.

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