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Public support for extending the 14-day rule on human embryo research indicated by foundational dialogue project

The findings of a foundational UK public dialogue on human embryo research are published today, Wednesday 25th October 2023, as part of the Wellcome-funded…

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The findings of a foundational UK public dialogue on human embryo research are published today, Wednesday 25th October 2023, as part of the Wellcome-funded Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI). The HDBI is an ambitious scientific endeavour to advance our understanding of human development. The dialogue project, which was co-funded by UKRI Sciencewise programme, engaged a diverse group of the public to consider how early human embryo research can be used to its fullest, the 14-day rule and the fast-paced field of stem cell-based embryo models.

Credit: Dr Matteo Molè (Babraham Institute)

The findings of a foundational UK public dialogue on human embryo research are published today, Wednesday 25th October 2023, as part of the Wellcome-funded Human Developmental Biology Initiative (HDBI). The HDBI is an ambitious scientific endeavour to advance our understanding of human development. The dialogue project, which was co-funded by UKRI Sciencewise programme, engaged a diverse group of the public to consider how early human embryo research can be used to its fullest, the 14-day rule and the fast-paced field of stem cell-based embryo models.

Headline findings include:

  • Appetite for review of the 14-day rule: Participants recognised that extending the 14-day rule could open up ways to achieve benefits in fertility and health, with participant support for reviewing this, including national discussion.
  • Confidence in regulation: There was a high level of confidence in how human embryo research is regulated, despite a low level of awareness of the regulators and statutes themselves. This included strong desire to see robust regulation governing any changes to the 14-day rule and further regulation for the use of stem cell-based embryo models.
  • Support for improved fertility and health outcomes: The strongest hopes for future human embryo research were where new knowledge would deliver improvements in understanding miscarriage, preventing health conditions such as spina bifida and raising the success rates of IVF procedures.
  • Concerns about genetically engineering humans: The public expressed concerns on the application of developments in this field to genetically alter or engineer humans.

The dialogue engaged a group of 70 people broadly reflective of the UK population in over 15 hours of activities including a series of online and face-to-face workshops with scientists, ethicists, philosophers, policy makers and people with relevant lived experience (such as embryo donors from IVF procedures).

Dr Peter Rugg-Gunn, scientific lead for the HDBI and senior group leader at the Babraham Institute, said: “Recent scientific advances bring incredible new opportunities to study and understand the earliest stages of human development. To ensure this research remains aligned with society’s values and expectations, we must listen and respond to public desires and concerns. This public dialogue is an important first step and as a scientist I am reassured by the findings but there is still a long way to go to fully understand this complex issue.” 

The report is exceedingly timely, following notable scientific advances in human developmental biology presented at conferences and in leading scientific journals in recent months. As well as generating excitement in scientific fields and with the public, announcement of these breakthroughs also prompted some concerns and criticisms, with the view that these findings raised significant ethical issues. The dialogue provides insight into public considerations following deliberation on early human embryo research. The hope is that it will act as a foundational reference point that others in the sectors can build upon, such as in any future review of the law on embryo research.

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, co-chair of the HDBI Oversight group, senior group leader and head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “We have learnt a lot about human development before 14 days, but there are areas of investigation that could change how we understand development, and associated diseases, that lie beyond our current window of knowledge. Despite low awareness of current laws, members of the public quickly recognised many of the critical issues researchers are keenly aware of when it comes to growing embryos beyond the current limit. This dialogue also reinforced the fact that the public are in support of research that will yield better health outcomes, and in this case, increase the success of IVF procedures.

Other countries will be looking to the UK to see how we deal with the 14-day rule; we are not there yet with any mandate to make a change, but this does give a strong pointer. The next step will be to delve deeper into some of the topics raised through this dialogue as they apply to specific areas of research, as well as feeding into policy changes.”

The 14-day rule and the regulation of stem cell-based models

When considering the regulation of research involving human embryos, the dialogue explored participant’s views on the 14-day rule. Introduced in 1990, the 14-day rule is a limit enforced by statute in the UK. It applies to early human embryos that are donated by consent to research and embryos that are created for research from donated sperm and eggs. It limits the amount of time early human embryos can be developed in a laboratory for scientific study to 14 days after fertilisation. Due to technical advances, it is now possible to grow embryos in the lab past 14 days, but researchers are not allowed to by the law. If the law changed, it would open up this ‘black box’ of development with researchers able to investigate this crucial time in development from 14-28 days after fertilisation.

Professor Bobbie Farsides, co-chair of the HDBI Oversight group and Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: “It has been a fascinating experience to support HDBI in the undertaking of this exercise.  I commend the participants for the care and mutual respect they have shown throughout. Their engagement and commitment to a subject few of them had previously considered allowed for a wide range of views to be expressed and considered. I hope the scientists involved will be encouraged by the high level of interest in their work, and will want to keep the public conversation going around these important subjects.”

The dialogue included participant discussion on what a change to the 14-day rule might look like, and identified points that should be considered, such as defining what the benefits of extending the rule would be and potential mis-alignment with human embryo research regulations in other countries.

Participants acknowledged the astonishing possibilities of stem cell-based embryo models. The majority of participants would like to see these models further regulated. Work in establishing potential governance mechanisms is already underway. In recognition of the need for additional guidance and regulation in this area, the Cambridge Reproduction initiative launched a project in March 2023 to develop a governance framework for research using stem cell-based embryo models and to promote responsible, transparent and accountable research.

Future steps

A key outcome from the public dialogue is the identification of areas for further exploration, with participants proposing how future national conversations might be shaped. It is hoped that the project acts as a reference base for both widening engagement with the subject and also prompting deeper exploration of areas of concern.

Dr Michael Norman, HDBI Public Dialogue coordinator and Public Engagement Manager at the Babraham Institute, said: “This dialogue shows that people want the public to work closely with scientists and the government to shape both future embryo research legislation and scientific research direction. It is crucial that others in the sector build on these high quality, two-way engagement methodologies that allow for a genuine exchange of views and information to ensure that the public’s desires and concerns are listened to and respected. Transparency and openness around science is vital for public trust and through this we, as a society, can shape UK research in way that enriches the outcomes for all.”

Public Participant (Broad public group, south) said: “I do think that an extension of this public dialogue, and educating a wider society has a benefit in itself. This is really complex and sensitive and the wider you talk about it before decisions are made, the better.”


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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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