Bristol-Myers Squibb is cracking the cancer code

Kelly Dawson
March 20, 2018
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There are more than 250 companies in our combined portfolios, and they are all making amazing advancements. From names you know, like Tesla, to those little gems you haven’t heard of yet, like Xylem, we want you to know all about what your holdings are up to. These ‘deep dives’ will help you understand what you’re invested into and how your dollars are making the world a better place.

Bristol-Myers Squibb is part of our Disease Eradication portfolio.

  • 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and nearly 600,000 people died that year from the disease; It’s one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb has  a global workforce of 25,000 people, about half of which are female and 30 percent are minorities, and a market capitalization of $88 billion
  • It has devoted about $5 billion to the research and development of new products  

If there’s one word to describe the state of American politics in the last few years, it would likely be contentious. Opinions are expressed with emotions, sides are drawn with fervor, and the future is seen with disparate eyes. That is, unfortunately, what we’ve gotten used to. And that’s why a five-minute exchange on an unlikely stage last December seemed to have struck a unifying cord above the national fray.

During a visit to daytime talk show The View to promote his newly-released book, which dealt with the loss of his son Beau from brain cancer, former Vice President Joe Biden comforted a tearful Meghan McCain. McCain was upset that her father, Senator John McCain, was fighting the same diagnoses as Biden’s son, and she was finding it difficult to chat about the subject. All Americans know which shade best suits the political leanings of these two families — it’s quite obvious that John McCain and Joe Biden are leaders of their opposing parties. And yet, on the subject of cancer, there was no division.

In the most touching moment of the segment, Biden held McCain’s hand and said, “There [are] breakthroughs that are occurring now...It can happen tomorrow.” In Biden’s effort to give McCain hope for her father’s health, and in her trust in his words, viewers of all political beliefs responded with collective praise. It was a glimpse into the personal lives of these famous people, and a peek into something that affects everyone, regardless of party affiliation: the universal fear and pain surrounding cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and nearly 600,000 people died that year from the disease. On a worldwide scale, the institute projects that 22 million people will learn that they have cancer in the next 20 years, with more than half of those diagnosed living in Asia, Africa, Central, and South America. It’s one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., as well as on the planet.

Biden’s words weren’t simply said to console a friend’s daughter. His namesake cancer initiative has shown him the advances that are being made to find a cure, and there are other companies who share the same viewpoints. One of those involved in this endeavor is Bristol-Myers Squibb, a 200-year-old biopharmaceutical company focused on the discovery, processing, and distribution of prescription drugs. While Bristol-Myers Squibb supplies a range of products to fight society’s most pressing bodily ills — like cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS — its specific work with cancer has seen strides that have stirred it own shared media coverage. Let’s talk about that after we get into what this company is all about.

Three’s company

Many decades before Bristol-Myers Squibb (which we’ll shorten to Bristol-Myers going forward) became a celebrated entity in modern medicine, it was a small business run by a single determined fellow. In 1858, Edward Robinson Squibb opened a manufacturing business for pharmaceuticals in Brooklyn after witnessing poor medical care on Navy vessels as a doctor serving in the Mexican-American War. He wanted medicine to be effective and accessible, a stance he made clear when he gave away his method of distilling ether rather than patenting it. He worked tirelessly to develop products that would serve a wide population. Squibb was so passionate, he even risked his life for it: His lab caught fire and burnt down three times.

Nearly 30 years later and also in New York, John Ripley Myers and William McLaren Bristol made a joint investment into Clinton Pharmaceutical Company, a failing brand they hoped to save — and they got their first national victory by the end of the century with a popular laxative mineral salt. The three last names didn’t meet until the two companies were both involved in antibiotic productions in the mid-20th century, which was a major cause at the time, but it took until 1989 for everything to come together. Given the global expansions that each party had achieved separately, the merger made Bristol-Myers the second-largest company of its kind in the world when the contracts were signed that year. And the new trifecta didn’t waste time making power plays into the 21st century.

The 90s were spent developing medicines to treat HIV, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and other major infections around the world. By the time the millennium had rolled around, Bristol-Myers was working on drugs for mental health disorders and metabolic diseases, and also developing partnerships to further its research into autoimmune diseases.

Although this was a general overview of a long walk down memory lane, it should provide some context into the company’s storied past. Bristol-Myers has been instrumental in some of the biggest issues of human health, from yesteryear’s need for penicillin to our current determination to cure cancer. It’s maintaining its prestigious standing with a global workforce of 25,000 people, about half of which are female and 30 percent are minorities, and a market capitalization of $88 billion. And it’s devoted about $5 billion to the research and development of new products.  

In fact, that’s a big reason why the company has recently made headlines.

The day after tomorrow

Bristol-Myers is currently focused on four main areas: oncology, cardiovascular disease, immunoscience, and fibrosis. Its drug platforms, or the mechanisms behind the drugs, are a bit lengthier.

The company studies a range of molecular formations, which include the likes of biologics (such as proteins and amino acids) that are injected, and small molecules (organic compounds) that can be ingested. Bristol-Myers also works with gene therapy for issues related to DNA, and other involved processes for microscopic-level care. Either the company does this work in their labs, or they partner with other businesses to make progress.

On February 14, as part of the company’s goal to find a cure for cancer, it was announced that it will pay startup Nektar Therapeutics $1.85 billion for rights to an experimental cancer drug monikered NKTR-214. If your eyes bulged at that price, you’re not alone: It’s the biggest licensing fee the biotech industry has ever seen. Should this drug hit the market, Bristol-Myers will receive 35 percent of the profits, and Nektar will get the rest. Why is it doing this? To test NKTR-214 with its already buzzed-about drugs Opdivo and Yervoy, which can create 20 different possible outcomes for nine forms of cancer. According to Forbes, Opdivo — which allows T-cells, which fight cancer, to spread — is forecasted to reach possible sales of $10 billion per year in the next four years.

“Early results combining Opdivo and NKTR-214 were presented in November and showed the drug combination shrinking skin, kidney, and lung tumors in many patients, including some who saw their tumors disappear,” Forbes’s writer Matthew Harper said. “But there was no control group of patients randomly assigned to receive Opdivo alone. That makes it hard to be certain that the results were really due to adding NKTR-214.”

Bristol-Myers is confident about the correlation, and more studies will be done to be sure. Because the thing that Bristol-Myers tries to remember is the impact it has on the patients it serves. All of the work that’s currently being done to understand and fight against cancer, as well as the other focuses of its therapeutic catalog, works in tandem with the feelings of its namesake founder, Edward Robinson Squibb: The company wants to bethe source of humane care where it currently doesn’t exist.

The market has undoubtedly gotten much larger since Squibb’s day, but his sentiment of filling this void remains. Bristol-Myers has the means and network to carry out his original plan, especially now in terms of cancer research and development, and it does so knowing that there are many lives at stake. Just as Biden comforted McCain with the hope that a breakthrough can happen tomorrow, Bristol-Myers is working to meet that sentiment with success as soon as that promising date.

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