What $20 will get you

The first day of the conference was good, but I did a bunch of running around and interviewing, punctuated by a long lunch with a client who revealed that his first marriage ended because his wife was making it with the landscaper. He is not very happy that his second wife enjoys Desperate Housewives so much.

Unfortunately, that lunch ran over into an interview, so I had to reschedule. My subject was only free at 5pm, after the conference ended. We talked till about 5:45, and I headed out from there.

The taxi line was approximately 2 miles long. I took one look at the massive queue and said, “Screw this! I’m goin’ home!”

Unfortunately, the McCormick convention center is pretty remote, so this was not going to be achieved on foot, especially after a full day on a convention center floor.

So I started walking over to the hotel connected to the center. Unfortunately, plenty of people got that idea and were already on line for cabs.

I couldn’t find a shuttle bus, and thought I could be risking things by sneaking onto the bus for the Sanofi reception; after all, that event could’ve been located even further from my hotel. I kept walking.

Then I saw a trolley-bus. The driver was standing outside it, leaning against the door. Three guys in good suits were walking by it. One said, “How much to get us uptown?” His buddies laughed and they walked on.

I said, “I’ll give you twenty dollars right now to get me to the Embassy Suites.”

He said, “Okay!” and jumped into the bus. I ran on and shouted to the three guys to follow me. They did. The trolley took off and started maneuvering through the traffic.

At one point, the driver said, “I hope I don’t get in trouble for this.”

One of the suits (they were all business development/arbitrage guys for biotechs) said, “Don’t you remember? The cops told you to move your bus, because of the safety issues with the protesters! You had to get going, and now you’re stuck in traffic!”

“Man, you guys are smart!” he told us.

Twenty bucks later (about $5-8 more than a cab ride), I was home.

Here’s a pic of the convention center:

Toddling with Mr. 3000

Off to Chicago for the BIO Conference. I’ll try to get Bernie Mac’s autograph at his plenary session.

I’m also hoping to get out and meander in the city for a bit. I was in Chicago in March 2000 for a small conference, but that was my only visit. I remember that the architecture in the core area (I forget what it’s called: the Loop or something?) was interesting because, while grand, it didn’t have the sheer vertical overwhelmingness of NYC’s major buildings. It felt more welcoming, in the way that the buildings seemed to sweep away and up, rather than upupUP.

Anyway, if I take any good pix, you’ll be the first to know.

Also, I just finished re-reading the Shakespeare’s Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV 1&2, and Henry V), and have decided to make my next couple of readings “books other people really like and told me to read.” So I’m taking along Geek Love (my wife adores it) and Clockers (my buddy Mark contends it’s like good Charles Dickens, with crack).

Moon Over Malaysia

Check out the Virtual Memories Podcast!

I’m headed to the BIO conference in a few weeks. It’s in Chicago this year, a city that I haven’t seen much of. I had a parenteral drug conference there in the spring of 2000, and enjoyed the environs and architecture. I’m hoping for a little more time to get out and explore this time. This trip will unfortunately be contrasted by another conference two weeks later in Anaheim.

The BIO conference is dominated by regional economic development councils, which are intent on bringing biotech companies and their manufacturing facilities into their areas. These EDCs have a lot of incentives to offer and different ways of enticing companies to set up shop. I wrote all about it in the April issue of my magazine; I’ll post a link to that piece when it’s available, in case you’re interested in the stuff I spend my days working on.

A lot of these EDCs want trade magazine editors to visit during BIO, so they can explain to us what their region has to offer. Sometimes this evolves into a trip to that region; that’s how my Sweden/Denmark trip in August 2004 happened. I’ve been to a few other sites as part of this process: Puerto Rico, Spokane, WA, Phoenix/Scottsdale, and probably some others that I’m forgetting. Generally, I’m too busy to travel on some many junkets, so I make the rounds at BIO and learn what I can about the regions.

Which leads me to the invite I received from a PR firm by e-mail today. They’d like me to sit down for an interview with the CEO of the Malaysian Biotechnology Corp., the government agency devoted to building a biotech industry in that country. It was a pretty gracious invite, and it’s flattering that the firm considers my magazine worth the interview-time.

But I looked at the invite for a few moments, thinking, “Malaysia . . . Malaysia . . . Oh, that’s right! They won’t let you into the country if you have an Israeli passport!”

I spent a few minutes researching to make sure that was the case (which led me to the previous Prime Minister’s anti-semitic comments from 2003). Yup! Malaysia doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence (but does recognize Palestine’s: whew!).

I was prepared to write off the invite then and there, but it occurred to me that Israel might have the exact same policy. You never know. I’d hate to be more of a hypocrite than I already am.

I ended up having to call the Israeli consulate to clear up the issue: Malaysians aren’t treated differently than any other nationality coming to visit Israel; they just need a visa like anyone else. I told the young lady on the phone about Malaysia’s policy. She said, “Ooh. That’s not nice.” We agreed that my mother wouldn’t be happy about it, either.

After that, I struggled to write the e-mail to the PR rep. I didn’t want to take on an adversarial tone, or imply that she was morally compromised by helping represent Malaysia. But I did want to express my point of view about what I wouldn’t meet with them. I went with

I know this is going to sound terrible, but I can’t in good conscience discuss the attractions of a biotech base in a country that would turn away most of my family at the border because of the passports they carry.

As near as I can tell, Malaysia has a blanket ban on entry by Israeli nationals (with case-by-case exceptions), and I’m afraid that I can’t publicize/promote a country with that policy.

If I have my facts wrong, please let me know ASAP.

Thanks,

Gil Roth

Now there’s only a problem if the MBC decides to start advertising. Still, it wouldn’t be as bad as taking an 8-page ad insert from Sudan, like the NYTimes did. I was hoping it would open with the banner: “Sudan: More than Genocide and Civil Wars!”

Check out the Virtual Memories Podcast!

Gilgamesh and the Genome

It’s a blast from the past! Here’s a From the Editor page I wrote in March 2000, when I was a newbie on my pharma magazine! Enjoy

Nearly 50 years ago, Francis Watson and James Crick uncovered the double-helical structure of DNA. A little more than a century ago, the fragments of the epic poem of Gilgamesh were discovered in the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. The tablets on which the poem were written date only a few hundred years after the invention of writing, a discovery that fundamentally changed human culture. The four-letter alphabet of DNA contains the possibilities of life in all its aspects. In both cases, scholars and scientists have spent years trying to decipher these strange languages.

Both of these sources, in a sense, address the same issue, albeit from opposite directions. Through the mapping of the human genome and the discoveries we shall make of the secrets of individual genes, we learn about the myriad individual components that create a gestalt of human life. Through gene therapy and other advances in biotechnology, we are told, man will someday overcome aging and possibly transcend death.

Through translating the story of Gilgamesh, we learn that man has always tried to circumvent death. The greatest king of his time (two-thirds divine, one-third man) travels to the limits of the underworld to learn how to overcome mortality. He learns that nothing is permanent. Upon returning to his kingdom of Uruk, all Gilgamesh can do is praise the strength of the city’s walls. Today, not one person in a million could identify Uruk on a map. Nor do those city walls stand. The first hero in literature faces the same limitations as a garbage man in the year 2000. Time passes and unmakes us all.

Scientists today question whether that process is necessary, and whether it can at least be slowed. The mission of translating the genetic language and making genes into a manipulable objects may accomplish Gilgamesh’s quest, 5000 years later.

Two worlds

I’m having a hard time splitting my thoughts between the events in Louisiana & Mississippi and the day-to-day stuff I need to get done, so I’m going to write a little more about the latter. I hope you don’t take it to mean that I’m glossing over what’s going on down there. If anything, I’m feeling this constant drain as I try to grasp the concept of a city that’s dying at high speed, while I’m racked with worry about the health and security of my future in-laws.

All of which is a preface to saying that I had a nice professional moment this morning. When I got the office, I received an e-mail from a guy at the European Commission in Brussels, asking if it’s okay to cite my Top Pharma/Biopharma Companies report in his new paper on Biotech and Applied Genomics R&D in Europe.

He sent an early copy of the study/proposal, which was mainly about how the EU has lagged in Biotech R&D. It had some neat suggestions for what they need to do to regain a competitive position vis-a-vis the U.S. and Asia (mainly the U.S.), but I was just gratified that all the work I did earlier this summer proved valuable enough for a government agency to base some of its findings.

In that same vein, a friend of mine called last night to see how I’m doing and what I’m up to in September. “Well, I said, I’ve gotta write the second part of my Biomarkers article, interview some people about Pharma/Biopharma facility design, get a lot of materials ready for our annual conference, and edit a bunch of contributed articles for the mag. At night I’ll be working my way through a re-read of Don Quixote, before my trip to Madrid in November.”

She thought I was complaining.

Wah, Wah, Wah,

[Here’s the From the Editor page for the latest issue of my magazine]

By now, the story of the first Vioxx lawsuit is old news. Merck was found liable in the death of Robert Ernst and the Texas jury awarded more than $250 million to his widow. State laws will knock that down to $26 million, and it may get reduced further on appeal. The penalty is harsh and, if it turns out to be the average payout for each trial, Merck will obviously go under. The company says it still plans to fight each lawsuit individually and not enter a class-action settlement, but has admitted that it may settle some cases rather than go to trial. For more on their legal/financial strategy, check out this Slate article.

The size of the award was troubling, of course, but once a case goes to trial, no one really knows what to expect. What was more troubling was a comment from one of the jurors in the case. From The Wall Street Journal‘s story the Monday after the verdict, we learned the following:

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. “Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah,” said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown’s teacher makes in the television cartoon. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.”

Yup: In a trial about the impact of Vioxx on Mr. Ernst’s health, the jurors had no idea what the science was about, and essentially ignored that part of the trial. This left them with the folksy popularism of plaintiff’s lawyer Mark W. Lanier, whose post-trial comments showed how he painted the case: “I love when a widow from a small town can stand up against one of the largest companies in the entire world, actually get access to their documents and show a jury how they killed her husband.”

Yup: “How they killed her husband.” I’m not sure if this is a step up or down from John Le Carre’s recent novel (and now a Major Motion Picture!) The Constant Gardener, in which ‘Big Pharma’ leaves the protagonist’s wife dead (and raped) in Africa, because of trials for a lucrative tuberculosis drug. We�re facing a serious PR problem in this business, and it’s not solely about the average American’s aversion to science.* Maybe people have seen Erin Brockovich enough to decide that all big business is evil, but when that big business is developing pharmaceuticals, we’re in serious trouble.

According to the WSJ article, Mr. Lanier assembled a “shadow jury” to follow each day’s proceedings. Each night, the shadow jury met with a consultant (they weren’t told which side they were consulting for) at the local McDonald’s, where they provided their feedback on the case.

Yup: While they were discussing whether it was Vioxx or clogged arteries that caused Mr. Ernst’s fatal heart attack, they were eating McDonald’s on a nightly basis. And they came out 9-4 against Merck.

Thanks,

Gil Roth
Editor

* About that “average American”: I’ve always contended that, as Americans, we only have two civic duties (as opposed to our existential duties of death and taxes): voting, and jury duty. But plenty of people find their way out of jury duty, ethically or not. This means that Merck was fighting the opening round of the battle for its life with a jury filled with people who couldn’t get out of jury duty.

What Goes On

Hey, gentlereader! Sorry to be absent for a while (except for those little goofy posts). I’ve been in a little bit of a writing-malaise lately, taking a mini-summer break.

I’ve also been exercising for the first time in forever. The upside is that I’m feeling a bazillion times better, even though all I’m doing is a half-hour on the treadmill. The downside is that I sweat worse than Patrick Ewing by the time I’m done. After that, I’m really not in a writing mood.

It’s only been about 3 weeks of exercise, but that’s an achievement for me, since I have zero willpower. I don’t run down physically, but it’s really tough to motivate myself to keep going. So nowadays I either pivot the gigantor-vision TV around so I can watch a baseball game while I’m treading, or I put an issue of the City Journal up on the display, so’s I can read while I’m on. Most magazines have too small a point size for me to read on the treadmill; I’m really hoping The Economist comes out with a large-print edition for myopic, out-of-shape mo’fo’s like myself.

Anyway, this post is more in the update mode than one with a particular theme. This week’s book is A Canticle For Leibowitz, after I got bored silly by Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I hoped for more out of that book, but through the first 85 pages it really focused far more on the biography of Proust than on the literary writing of Proust. Those are two really different things, and I’m not sure what Botton was thinking in focusing on that stuff. I’ll read the rest of it some evening, just to see if it gets better.

I’ve also been answering people’s questions about the Merck/Vioxx case. I mean, I’ve been trying to get them to understand the questions they’re asking, because the world’s a lot more complicated than “Did Merck lie?”

So today’s big lesson was that there’s a drug with more bizarre problems with Vioxx. A journalist called me earlier today to ask about some drug companies. Then he mentioned Mirapex, and wanted to know if I had anything to see about “the lawsuits.”

I’d never heard of the drug, so I googled it whle we were talking. This is what I found. Yup! There’s a Parkinson’s drug that may leave users with “powerful urges to gamble, shop, have sex and eat compulsively.”

Or, as I like to say, “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature!”

Enjoying my day job

I’m writing an article about biomarkers and their use in drug development. While doing some research, I came across this article from the editor of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. It opens:

When David Beckham leaves the field towards the end of a match, the man who replaces him is a surrogate. Although I suspect that many footballers, if asked, would say that Surrogate is a town in Yorkshire, the word actually comes from the Latin word subrogare, to substitute.

American Job Destruction Act

When I write my annual Top 20 Pharma Companies & Top 10 Biopharma Companies report (this year’s edition is soon to post at the website of my day job), I read a lot of annual reports, along with industry analysis, news coverage, and other neat sources.

The annual reports have two parts: the glossy front half, hyping the company to the general public, and the fine-print back half, breaking down a lot of the numbers and providing SEC-mandated information (litigation issues, executive compensation, accounting policies, etc.). It took a couple of years before I started to understand a little of the subtext in the reports.

I’m still no expert with this stuff (or I’d be making a lot more money), but I do find it pretty fascinating. For example, virtually every company I profiled this year included a variation on the following:

On October 22, 2004, President Bush signed into law the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (AJCA), which creates a temporary incentive for U.S. corporations to repatriate undistributed income earned abroad by providing an 85% dividends received deduction for certain dividends from controlled foreign corporations. Although the deduction is subject to a number of limitations and uncertainty remains as to how to interpret certain provisions of the AJCA, we believe we have the information necessary to make an informed decision on the impact of the AJCA on our repatriation plans. Based on that decision, we plan to repatriate [bazillions of dollars] . . .

The upshot of the AJCA was that foreign revenues, which were previously taxed at 38%, were now to be taxed at 5.25% for a single year, if repatriated for the purpose of “creating jobs”. Turns out that a lot of companies have been stowing away a lot of money in foreign revenues, rather than bringing it back to the U.S., where it would have been taxed to bejeesus. Pfizer has decided to bring nearly $37 billion in foreign money into the U.S. under the AJCA. I thought the numbers were pretty astounding, but I had no idea (and no time to research) how much money other major companies were repatriating.

According to this article from BusinessWeek, it turns out my industry is way out in front. In comparison with Pfizer’s enormous stash, Dell’s bringing back just $4.1 billion. Problem is, there’s no way to show that the money’s being used to create jobs. After all, if Pfizer’s R&D budget is $8 billion for 2005, according to the AJCA, they could use the repatriated money for that same R&D budget, and spend the originally budgeted money on buying solid gold rocket cars for all the top executives.

It’s a pretty ineptly named bill since, erversely enough, a bunch of companies benefiting from the American Jobs Creation Act (like Pfizer and Merck) are in the process of dismantling some of their operations and laying off a bunch of employees. Read more about it.

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