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Gray whales experience major population swings as a result of Arctic conditions, research shows

NEWPORT, Ore. – Dynamic and changing Arctic Ocean conditions likely caused three major mortality events in the eastern North Pacific gray whale population…

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NEWPORT, Ore. – Dynamic and changing Arctic Ocean conditions likely caused three major mortality events in the eastern North Pacific gray whale population since the 1980s, a new study has found.

Credit: Credit: NOAA Fisheries/SWFSC/MMTD.

NEWPORT, Ore. – Dynamic and changing Arctic Ocean conditions likely caused three major mortality events in the eastern North Pacific gray whale population since the 1980s, a new study has found.

During each of these die-offs, including one that began in 2019 and is ongoing, the gray whale population was reduced by up to 25% over just a few years, said Joshua Stewart, an assistant professor with Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and the study’s lead author.

“These are extreme population swings that we did not expect to see in a large, long-lived species like gray whales,” Stewart said. “When the availability of their prey in the Arctic is low, and the whales cannot reach their feeding areas because of sea ice, the gray whale population experiences rapid and major shocks.”

“Even highly mobile, long-lived species such as gray whales are sensitive to climate change impacts. When there are sudden declines in the quality of prey, the population of gray whales is significantly affected.” 

The findings were just published in the journal Science.

Eastern North Pacific gray whales are one of the few populations of large whales that have recovered to what may be similar numbers that existed prior to commercial whaling. As the population has approached levels close to what their Arctic feeding areas can support, they have likely become more sensitive to environmental conditions due to competition for limited resources, Stewart said.

The unfavorable Arctic conditions that led to two die-offs in the 1980s and the 1990s were not permanent, and the population quickly rebounded as conditions improved.

“It turns out we didn’t really know what a healthy baleen whale population looks like when it isn’t heavily depleted by human impacts,” he said. “Our assumption has generally been that these recovering populations would hit their environmental carrying capacities and remain more or less steady there. But what we’re seeing is much more of a bumpy ride in response to highly variable and rapidly changing ocean conditions.”

Eastern North Pacific gray whales, which currently number about 14,500, migrate more than 12,000 miles each year along the Pacific Coast, from the warm waters off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, in the winter months to the cold, productive waters of the Arctic to feed in the summer months.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, have been conducting long-term population monitoring studies of these whales since the 1960s, tracking abundance, birth and death rates and monitoring body condition using aerial images. This extensive research has made this population of gray whales the most closely studied large whale population on the planet, providing a unique window into the population dynamics of the species.

“This research demonstrates the value of long-term data in understanding not only the species under study but also the environment it depends on,” said Dave Weller, director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal and Turtle Division. “When we began collecting data on gray whales in 1967, little did we realize the important role they would play in understanding the effects of climate change on an iconic sentinel species in the Pacific. This research would not have been possible without our reliable long-term record.”

The eastern North Pacific gray whale population, which was hunted to near extinction before a whaling moratorium was enacted, has been viewed as a conservation success story because of the population’s rapid recovery in the post-whaling era.

In 2019, when a high number of gray whale strandings began occurring along the Pacific coast, Stewart, a researcher at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center at the time, began looking more closely at the long-term data to see if he could learn more about what might be driving the unusual mortality event.

By combining the long-term data sets on the gray whale population with extensive environmental data from the Arctic, Stewart and his collaborators determined that the two “Unusual Mortality Events” declared by NOAA in 1999 and 2019 were tied to both sea ice levels in the Arctic and the biomass of seafloor-living crustaceans that gray whales target for food.

Stewart also identified a third die-off in the 1980s that followed a similar pattern but was not associated with higher numbers of strandings, likely due to lower reporting rates of stranded whales prior to the 1990s.

The researchers found that years with less summer sea ice in the gray whales’ Arctic feeding areas provided increased foraging opportunities that benefited the population. However, in the long term, decreasing sea ice cover, a result of rapid and accelerating climate change, most likely will not be beneficial to gray whales.

Benthic amphipods, the calorie-rich prey that gray whales prefer, are also sensitive to sea ice cover. Algae that grow underneath sea ice sink to the seafloor, enriching the amphipod population. Less ice leads to less algae reaching the seafloor, warmer water that favors smaller benthic crustaceans and faster currents that reduce habitat for gray whales’ preferred prey.

“With less ice, you get less algae, which is worse for the gray whale prey,” Stewart said. “All of these factors are converging to reduce the quality and availability of the food they rely on.”

For the gray whales, less prey availability ultimately leads to die-offs. The most recent event is still considered ongoing and has continued significantly longer than the two earlier events.

“We are in uncharted territory now. The two previous events, despite being significant and dramatic, only lasted a couple of years,” Stewart said. “The most recent mortality event has slowed and there are signs things are turning around, but the population has continued to decline. One reason it may be dragging on is the climate change component, which is contributing to a long-term trend of lower-quality prey.”

Gray whales have lived through hundreds of thousands of years of environmental change and have adapted over that time to changing conditions, making extinction due to climate change unlikely, Stewart said.

“I wouldn’t say there is a risk of losing gray whales due to climate change,” he said. “But we need to think critically about what these changes might mean in the future. An Arctic Ocean that has warmed significantly may not be able to support 25,000 gray whales like it has in the recent past.”

Coauthors of the study include Trevor W. Joyce of Ocean Associates; John Durban of the Marine Mammal Institute and Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research; John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective; Deborah Fauquier of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources; Holly Fearnbach of SR3; Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Morgan Lynn, Wayne Perriman of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries; Manfredi Manizza of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego; and Tim Tinker of Nhydra Consulting and University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Marine Mammal Institute is part of Oregon State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and is based at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.


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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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Another country is getting ready to launch a visa for digital nomads

Early reports are saying Japan will soon have a digital nomad visa for high-earning foreigners.

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Over the last decade, the explosion of remote work that came as a result of improved technology and the pandemic has allowed an increasing number of people to become digital nomads. 

When looked at more broadly as anyone not required to come into a fixed office but instead moves between different locations such as the home and the coffee shop, the latest estimate shows that there were more than 35 million such workers in the world by the end of 2023 while over half of those come from the United States.

Related: There is a new list of cities that are best for digital nomads

While remote work has also allowed many to move to cheaper places and travel around the world while still bringing in income, working outside of one's home country requires either dual citizenship or work authorization — the global shift toward remote work has pushed many countries to launch specific digital nomad visas to boost their economies and bring in new residents.

Japan is a very popular destination for U.S. tourists. 

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This popular vacation destination will soon have a nomad visa

Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Latvia and Malta are some of the countries currently offering specific visas for foreigners who want to live there while bringing in income from abroad.

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With the exception of a few, Asian countries generally have stricter immigration laws and were much slower to launch these types of visas that some of the countries with weaker economies had as far back as 2015. As first reported by the Japan Times, the country's Immigration Services Agency ended up making the leap toward a visa for those who can earn more than ¥10 million ($68,300 USD) with income from another country.

The Japanese government has not yet worked out the specifics of how long the visa will be valid for or how much it will cost — public comment on the proposal is being accepted throughout next week. 

That said, early reports say the visa will be shorter than the typical digital nomad option that allows foreigners to live in a country for several years. The visa will reportedly be valid for six months or slightly longer but still no more than a year — along with the ability to work, this allows some to stay beyond the 90-day tourist period typically afforded to those from countries with visa-free agreements.

'Not be given a residence card of residence certificate'

While one will be able to reapply for the visa after the time runs out, this can only be done by exiting the country and being away for six months before coming back again — becoming a permanent resident on the pathway to citizenship is an entirely different process with much more strict requirements.

"Those living in Japan with the digital nomad visa will not be given a residence card or a residence certificate, which provide access to certain government benefits," reports the news outlet. "The visa cannot be renewed and must be reapplied for, with this only possible six months after leaving the countr

The visa will reportedly start in March and also allow holders to bring their spouses and families with them. To start using the visa, holders will also need to purchase private health insurance from their home country while taxes on any money one earns will also need to be paid through one's home country.

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