Category Archives: Pharmaceutical

Amgen CEO says Aimovig is “one of most successful launches”

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As biosimilars start to eat into sales of its blockbuster biologic drugs, Amgen needs new products to deliver growth – and it says migraine therapy Aimovig is off to a great start.

Chief executive Bob Bradway told investors on the company’s third-quarter results call that Aimovig (erenumab) is “shaping up to be one of the industry’s most successful recent launches” with sales reaching $22m in the quarter, ahead of analyst expectations.

“People suffering from migraine and their physicians have been waiting for years for an effective new therapy and they’ve reacted very well to Aimovig,” he said. The company estimates that more than 100,000 patients have taken the Novartis-partnered CGRP inhibitor since its launch in May as a once-monthly, self-injected preventive treatment for migraines.

The strong take-up has come despite approvals for rival CGRP inhibitors from Teva and Lilly, and Amgen says its first-mover advantage is backed up by a patient-friendly delivery device, as well as a willingness by healthcare payers to cover the product thanks to a price that encourages access.

The company is also making much of the fact that Aimovig is the only drug that targets the CGRP receptor rather than the CGRP protein itself, although for now there’s no strong evidence to suggest that confers a clinical advantage.

There’s no doubt that the rapid roll-out comes from pent-up demand for the drug among people with migraine who still suffer headaches despite other therapies. However Amgen’s commercial head Murdo Gordon said he believes “we’re scratching the surface of helping chronic migraine sufferers [and] we think that we’ll see continued demand growth.”

Overall, Amgen posted a 2% rise in revenues to $5.78bn in the quarter, despite pressure on older drugs like while blood cell booster Neulasta (pegfilgrastim) which showed the first signs of weakness from biosimilar competition after Mylan/Biocon launched their Fulphila rival in July. TNF inhibitor Enbrel (etanercept) also fell 5% in the face of competition from newer drugs in indications such as psoriasis.

There was also disappointing news once again for cholesterol drug Repatha (evolocumab) which rose 35% to $120m but missed expectations. Last week, Amgen reduced its price by 60% to $5,850 in a bid to kickstart sales growth and overcome payer resistance to the drug.

“This should substantially lower their out-of-pocket costs and lower the abandonment rate which is as high as 75%,” said Gordon, who said the cut was necessary to compete and would build much-needed volumes at the expense of near-term sales.

The Repatha discount comes as the US administration is ramping up the pressure on the biopharma industry on drug pricing, most recently proposing a reference pricing model to bring process closer into line with other affluent nations.

Commenting on the overall environment and how it looks likely to develop in 2019, Bradway said that the US has benefitted enormously from a market which allows patients to access new therapies “more quickly and more comprehensively than in other countries.”

“We think what’s required is more innovation, not less, and the system that enables people to get access to that innovation swiftly,” he suggested.

SOURCE: www.pmlive.com/pharma_news

Amazon sells exclusive diabetes and hypertension devices

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Amazon has launched an exclusive range of medical devices to help people manage their diabetes and hypertension at home.

The Choice devices, produced by the healthcare consultancy, Arcadia Group – which is not affiliated with the British fashion brand of the same name –include blood glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors and test strips.

Choice estimates that diabetes and hypertension affect up to 130 million Americans and hopes that its devices will help those afflicted to benefit from daily monitoring and progress tracking over time.

Conventional models and devices enabled with Bluetooth connectivity features will be available to buy, with pricing said to offer better value over devices that can be bought in pharmacies, according to the company.

Bob Guest, CEO of Arcadia Group, said: “The Choice brand is all about accessible wellness. Consumers no longer need to drive to a store to stand in-line and purchase their medical devices and supplies.

“Now, in the privacy of their home, consumers can review, compare and purchase the products of their choice. No insurance is required. Therefore, customers have the freedom of choice. They will no longer be told by their insurance company what brand they can buy. Choice is freedom.”

Guest went on to describe the products as “best in class and very affordable”. He said the company intends to incorporate voice-driven measurement interpretation as well as individualize wellness recommendations via Amazon’s Echo home speaker devices.

“This is all possible with Alexa, and will provide patients with a wellness experience not available until now,” he said.

Amazon is expanding its health-related products to capture more of the market. In June this year, the online retailer announced it is buying PillPack for $1 billion.

The move is expected to disrupt the pharmacy market by delivering pre-sorted medicines and refills to customers’ doors.

PillPack describes itself as “a full-service pharmacy that delivers a better, simpler experience for people managing multiple medications”. The firm liaises with doctors and also provides customer support.

SOURCE: www.pharmaphorum.com/news

Roche and SQZ expand cell therapy deal to more than $1.3bn

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US biotech SQZ Biotechnologies has expanded a collaboration with Roche to develop cancer therapies based on antigen presenting cells, which may be able to target solid tumours and which are cheaper to make than the recently approved CAR-T drugs.

The deal announced late yesterday expands a collaboration that began in 2015 to a deal worth more than $1.375 billion if all development targets are met.

SQZ’s technology is based around antigen presenting cells (APCs), which occur naturally in the body and present antigen on their surface to stimulate a T-cell response against that particular antigen.

SQZ is able to genetically engineer APCs with tumour antigens, that when injected into the body can produce powerful responses from CD8 T-cells – also known as killer T-cells.

The hope is that these killer T-cells will produce a strong response against any tumour target of interest, across a wide range of cancers.

Roche already has a cancer immunotherapy on the market – its Tecentriq (atezolizumab) is already approved in certain kinds of bladder and lung cancer.

But unlike Novartis and Gilead it does not have cell therapy approved yet and is looking to develop cell therapies that could be used in solid tumours, instead of blood cancer like its rivals’ CAR-T therapies.

Under the collaboration, SQZ may receive up to $125 million in upfront payment and near-term milestones.

SQZ could earn up to $250 million in clinical, regulatory and sales milestones per product that emerges from the collaboration.

The Massachusetts-based biotech may receive development milestone payments of over $1 billion. Within the collaboration, SQZ and Roche could share commercial rights for certain approved products.

Howard Bernstein, chief scientific officer of SQZ, said: “This collaboration allows for a SQZ APC product engine that could potentially generate products with more potent immunologic responses through a simplified, more efficient manufacturing process.”

Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) drugs are potentially curative in the patients that respond – but are very expensive to make as they involve harvesting a patient’s T-cells, genetically modifying them in a lab, and then re-injecting them to fight cancer.

SOURCE: www.pharmaphorum.com/news

Novo Nordisk to launch connected insulin pens in early 2019

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Danish healthcare firm Novo Nordisk has unveiled plans to introduce new durable, connected insulin pens in early 2019.

The new NovoPen 6 and NovoPen Echo Plus connected insulin pens will replace the NovoPen 5 and NovoPen Echo insulin pens.

Novo Nordisk will commence the launch of new connected insulin pens in the first quarter of 2019. They are expected to be available in more than 50 countries.

The company expects to deliver connectivity for its disposable, pre-filled injection pens later in 2019.

Novo Nordisk commercial strategy and corporate affairs executive vice president said: “Our non-exclusive partnership strategy allows us to integrate with the various digital platforms that people are already using to help manage their diabetes.

“We firmly believe that this will help more people realise the full benefit of our innovative medicines and begin to ease the mental burden of diabetes treatment for those individuals.”

In parallel, the company has also entered into new partnership agreements with major diabetes technology firms such as Dexcom, Glooko and Roche to enable future integration of its connected pens with various digital health solutions.

As part of the deal with Roche, the partnership will incorporate insulin dosage information from Novo Nordisk’s connected pen technology into Roche’s open ecosystem, enabling to communicate with its digital diabetes management solutions such as mySugr.

The firm will also incorporate data from connected pen devices with its partners’ diabetes management solutions such as continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems and blood glucose meters (BGM).

Novo Nordisk will incorporate insulin dosing data with Dexcom CGM data in the coming years.

Roche diabetes care global head Marcel Gmuender said: “We believe in the tremendous benefits integrated digital diabetes management solutions can bring to people with diabetes, caregivers and healthcare systems as part of an open ecosystem and are excited to partner with Novo Nordisk to further drive innovation in this area.”

With marketing activities in more than 170 countries, Novo Nordisk is engaged in providing treatment solutions for obesity, haemophilia, growth disorders and other serious chronic diseases.

SOURCE: www.compelo.com/medical-devices/news

Study using DFMO shows positive results for children with high risk neuroblastoma

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A paper published September 27 in Scientific Reports shows the positive results of a phase II clinical trial using the oral medication DFMO to prevent relapse in children with High Risk Neuroblastoma (HRNB).

Neuroblastoma is a form of cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. It occurs most often in infants and young children, usually under the age of five. The disease remains a challenge in pediatric oncology and current treatments include therapies that have significant long-term side effects for patients.

HRNB accounts for 15 percent of all childhood cancer deaths, in part, due to the fact that nearly half of all patients who reach remission will relapse.

“These results are promising and have changed the outlook for our patients with high risk neuroblastoma,” said Giselle Sholler, MD, director of pediatric oncology research at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and principal investigator of the study.

“By using DFMO for two years after finishing conventional therapy, we’ve seen an overall two-year survival rate for these children of 97 percent. This is a large increase in survival,” Sholler added. “Previously it was believed that children with refractory and relapsed neuroblastoma were considered incurable. This study shows more than 50 percent of patients remaining in remission up to four years.”

Beat Childhood Cancer’s trial studied the use of difluoromethylornithine (DFMO) as a single agent for enrolled patients at 20 children’s hospitals from June 2012 to February 2016. The children received two years of oral DFMO twice daily and were evaluated for outcomes of event free survival (EFS*) and overall survival (OS). The study used targeted oral therapy of an ODC inhibitor (DFMO), as a maintenance therapy to prevent relapse in HRNB patients after standard therapy. DFMO works by targeting specific cancer stem cell pathways and “turning off” the cells, thereby preventing the cancer from growing back.

There were two arms in this study, the first designed for patients who had completed standard therapy, and the second for children who were able to achieve remission after having previously relapsed. Both of these patient populations are at very high risk of relapsing after completing treatment and therefore can be very good candidates for using a maintenance therapy with the goal of preventing relapse.

With a median follow up of 3.5 years, the first arm of the study had 100 eligible patients. The results show that two-year EFS was 84 percent and two-year OS was 97 percent.

With a median follow up of 3.7 years, the study enrolled 39 previously relapsed patients and the results reported in the journal showed that two year EFS was 54 percent and two-year OS was 84 percent for these children who had previously relapsed.

“While these EFS and OS figures at two years are remarkable, the really exciting part of these results is that EFS and OS are stable out to four years,” said Patrick Lacey of Beat NB Cancer Foundation, one of the childhood cancer parent-led foundations that funded this clinical trial. “Not only did this oral drug lead to a prolonged and stable remission for the children in this study, but the drug was extremely safe and well tolerated in this patient population.”

“While many children have been able to attain remission with the current, albeit harsh, upfront therapies, these remissions are not historically durable,” Dr. Sholler added. “The current five-year survival curves have not changed significantly in the past two decades despite recent increases in two-year survival as a result of intensified therapies and new multimodal therapies.”

Principal Investigator at MUSC, Jaqueline Kraveka, MD, states survival for children with high-risk neuroblastoma remains a challenge. “These results are groundbreaking and very exciting for oncologists and their patient families. I am thrilled to have our confirmatory study open at so many sites across the USA and Canada, enabling children to receive this treatment close to home.”

SOURCE: www.news-medical.net/news/20181001

Bacterial therapy shows early promise in patients with advanced solid tumours

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Researchers have presented results of a Phase I clinical trial using bacterial Clostridium novyi-NT spores to target advanced solid tumours.

A Phase I clinical trial that investigated the use of bacterial Clostridium novyi-NT spores as an injectable monotherapy showed toxicities that were manageable and early clinical efficacy in patients with treatment-refractory solid tumour malignancies.

“Even after a single injection of this bacterial therapy, we see biological and, in some patients, clinically meaningful activity,” said Dr Filip Janku, Associate Professor at the Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston.

“This strategy is feasible, has manageable adverse effects, and could be clinically meaningful in patients with few therapeutic options.”

Previous therapies have tested the use of bacteria, but have often caused infection. In this study, the use of C. novyi-NT spores in the open-label, first-in-human study, the researchers explained how a hypoxic environemnt is necessary for the bacterium. It requires a feature of cancerous lesions to survive and proliferate, and thus does not affect healthy cells.

“By exploiting the inherent differences between healthy and cancerous tissue, C. novyi-NT represents a very precise anticancer therapeutic that can specifically attack a patient’s cancer,” Prof Janku said.

Between 2013 and 2017, 24 patients were enrolled with treatment-refractory solid tumors, with 15 patients having sarcoma, seven patients having diverse carcinoma and two with melanoma.

Tumours were injected with a single dose of C. novyi-NT, from 10,000 to 3 million spores. Patients administered with 3 million spores experienced dose-limiting toxicities of grade 4 sepsis, and as such the highest tolerated dose was determined to be 1 million spores.

Tumour shrinkage of greater than 10 percent was identified in 23 percent of the patients, and 21 had stable disease, measured by RECIST. Prof Janku mentioned that RECIST may not accurately capture results of the trial.

“Despite the absence of clinical signs of germination in some patients, we saw improved tumor-specific immune responses through the increased secretion of T-cell cytokines and increased presence of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes in injected tumors,” said Prof Janku.

“From these preliminary results, it appears that C. novyi-NT is able to activate the immune response besides causing tumor destruction.”

C. novyi-NT elicits an immune response, and as such Prof Janku believes this therapy will be synergistic with checkpoint inhibition.

“We were extremely encouraged by the results of this trial, especially in patients with advanced sarcomas, where immunotherapy hasn’t proven very efficacious,” Prof Janku concluded. “This bacteriolytic strategy has the potential to be clinically meaningful, especially in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, for patients with advanced solid tumors.”

The data was presented at the Fourth CRI-CIMT-EATI-AACR International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference: Translating Science into Survival.

SOURCE: www.europeanpharmaceuticalreview.com/news/79682

Pfizer CEO Ian Read set to step down from head position

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Ian Read is set to step down from his position as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of American pharma firm Pfizer, having led the company for the past eight years.

In handing the reins to Pfizer veteran Albert Bourla, who was elected unanimously by the pharma giant’s board of directors, the Scottish-born CEO suggested that “now is the right time for a leadership change.”

“It’s been an honour to serve as Pfizer’s CEO for the past eight years,” Read said. “However, now is the right time for a leadership change, and Albert is the right person to guide Pfizer through the coming era. Albert is an energizing leader who has an unwavering commitment to serving patients. With 25 years at Pfizer, he has developed an extensive knowledge of the industry and demonstrated an ability to build and grow businesses. With Albert at the helm, our dedicated colleagues across the globe are poised to deliver the next stage of growth. I look forward to working with Albert and the Board to continue serving patients and delivering value for shareholders.”

The position will be taken over by current Chief Operating Officer (COO) Bourla, who will assume his new role on January 1st 2019. Meanwhile Read will transition into his new position as Executive Chairman of Pizer’s board of directors.

“I am humbled and privileged to be the next CEO of Pfizer, and I appreciate the confidence that both Ian and the Board of Directors have placed in me. I also want to thank Ian for his constant support, and am fortunate to have him as both a mentor and friend. I welcome Ian’s continuing contributions as Executive Chairman.”

Since joining the company in 2010 the Imperial College London graduate has overseen 30 FDA approvals, a 70% increase in annual dividends, and total shareholder return of 250%.

However, having joined Pfizer as the firm was hit by the expiry of the patents on both Viagra, and the world’s best-selling drug Lipitor; Read persevered through a turbulent period for the US drugmaker, during which the company experienced $27 billion in lost sales.

Nevertheless the Pfizer chief received a 61% pay rise last year in agreement for staying on at the company until March. The boost saw his total pay package come in at $27.9 million, making him one of the highest paid execs in the whole of the pharmaceutical industry.

Shantanu Narayen, Lead Independent Director of Pfizer’s Board of Directors, commented: “On behalf of the Board of the Directors, I want to thank Ian for his remarkable leadership as CEO. During an extraordinary period for the company, he successfully managed through $23 billion of lost revenue due to product losses of exclusivity, while at the same time driving strong and consistent financial performance and investing for the future. Consequently, Pfizer now has a pipeline that we believe is as deep and strong as ever. In addition, Ian has built a unique ownership culture that increased accountability and encouraged collaboration. As such, the company is now better positioned for success”

He added that “Today’s leadership announcement is part of a thoughtful, multi-year succession planning process”

Pfizer shares were up 0.4% in pre-market trade in New York on Monday morning after closing on a 17 year high.

SOURCE: www.pharmafile.com/news/518936

Cancer immunotherapy pioneers awarded Nobel medicine prize

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Cancer immunotherapy pioneers James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The Karolinska Institutet’s Nobel Assembly awarded the prize for their discovery of cancer therapy “by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

The work by Allison and Honjo paved the way for drugs such as Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy (ipilimumab), which work by turning off the safety mechanisms in the immune system that prevents it from attacking the patient’s own body.

This allows the immune system to launch an attack against cancer – a mechanism that is fast becoming the basis for standard therapy in diseases such as melanoma and lung cancer.

Allison, currently professor and chair of Immunology and executive director, immunotherapy platform at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, studied a known protein, cytotoxic T-lymphocyte associated protein-4 (CTLA-4), that functions as a brake on the immune system.

He realised the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumours. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.

Inhibition of CTLA-4 is the mechanism exploited by Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy (ipilimumab), the first checkpoint inhibitor approved by the FDA in 2011, to treat melanoma.

Honjo, now deputy director-general at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study (KUIAS), discovered the programmed cell death protein (PD-1)  protein on immune cells.

After careful exploration of its function, he eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action.

In inhibition of PD-1, or its ligand, PD-L1, it forms the basis for all the other checkpoint inhibitors approved so far, including Merck’s blockbuster Keytruda (pembrolizumab).

In its statement the Nobel assembly noted that although PD-1 had proved to be more effective overall, combining the two forms of therapy could be even more effective, as demonstrated in patients with melanoma.

(c) Nobel Media

James Allison

The committee concluded in its statement: “Allison and Honjo have inspired efforts to combine different strategies to release the brakes on the immune system with the aim of eliminating tumour cells even more efficiently.

(c) Nobel Media

Tasuku Honjo

“A large number of checkpoint therapy trials are currently underway against most types of cancer, and new checkpoint proteins are being tested as targets. For more than 100 years scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest. Checkpoint therapy has now revolutionised cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed.”

In a statement, Shigefumi More, director general and distinguished professor at KUIAS, said: “It is wonderful that the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy by PD-1 blockade has now been demonstrated worldwide, and that this therapy is actually saving the lives of many people. I would like to express my respect for his important work for human beings, and wish Distinguished Professor Honjo continued success in the future.”

SOURCE: www.pharmaphorum.com/news

Roche buys Tusk, plus cancer immunotherapy drug, for £62m

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Roche has bought immuno-oncology biotech firm Tusk Therapeutics for an upfront payment of £62 million.

Tusk’s shareholders will receive the upfront cash payment, plus additional contingent payments of up to £521 million, if and when certain milestones are achieved.

Tusk, which is based in Stevenage, has developed a first-in-class antibody, CD25, for the depletion of regulatory T-cells (TRegs), which suppress the body’s immune reaction to cancer cells.

This novel antibody enables the body’s other immune cells to fight tumours while leaving healthy tissue unharmed. Clinical trials are expected to start next year.

Luc Dochez, CEO of Tusk Therapeutics, said: “We are delighted that Roche will further develop this novel antibody and drive the development ahead.

“The remaining portfolio of our immune-oncology targets will be further developed by Black Belt Therapeutics, a newly formed company spun out of Tusk Therapeutics.”

Droia Oncology Ventures, Tusk’s majority shareholder, founded the company in 2014. Droia is a specialist investor, which focuses on fighting cancer.

It invests in promising new cancer therapies and accelerates their progress by actively supporting young drug development companies to achieve clinical proof of concept with their lead programmes. The deal will expand Roche’s oncology pipeline.

Also, Roche today announced a new collaboration with Novo Nordisk, which specialises in the treatment and management of diabetes and obesity.

The plan is to integrate insulin dosage information from Novo Nordisk’s connected pen technology into Roche’s open ecosystem, whereby it will communicate with its digital diabetes management solutions including mySugr, which allows people to monitor their glucose levels.

Marcel Gmuender, global head of Roche Diabetes Care, said: “The integration of insulin pen data in our digital health solutions such as mySugr will make it much easier for people with diabetes and their caregivers to track the effect of insulin on blood glucose levels.

“This enables more efficient and targeted decision support, as they can act on near real-time insights to optimise the personalised diabetes management, thereby reducing the risk of costly secondary complications and contributing to improved therapy outcomes and better quality of life.”

Anders Toft, corporate vice president of commercial innovation at Novo Nordisk, echoed this, adding: “Digital health solutions like mySugr are already helping thousands of patients. By integrating Novo Nordisk connected technology with mySugr, we can further ease the day-to-day burden of disease management and provide data-based insights to improve the dialogue between patients and caregivers.”

SOURCE: www.pharmaphorum.com/news

Instagram has a drug problem. Its algorithms make it worse.

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As it tries to crack down on ads for illegal drugs, the company is struggling to keep up with its own algorithms and systems, which serve up personalized drug-related content for people interested in buying substances illicitly.

Instagram is known for its celebrity posts and photos of enviable vacations. But it has also become a sizable open marketplace for advertising illegal drugs. The company has pledged a crackdown in recent weeks, but it is struggling to keep pace with its own algorithms and systems, which serve up an array of personalized drug-related content aimed directly at people who show an interest in buying substances illicitly.

Recent searches on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, for hashtags of the names of drugs – such as #oxy, #percocet, #painkillers, #painpills, #oxycontin, #adderall and #painrelief – revealed thousands of posts by a mash-up of people grappling with addiction, bragging about their partygoing lifestyle and enticements from drug dealers.

Following the dealer accounts, or even liking one of the dealer posts, prompted Instagram’s algorithms to work as designed – in this case, by filling up a person’s feed with posts for drugs, suggesting other sellers to follow and introducing new hashtags, such as #xansforsale. Ads from some of the country’s largest brands, including Target, Chase and Procter & Gamble, as well as Facebook’s own video streaming service, appeared next to posts illegally selling pills.

Even as top executives from Facebook and Twitter, which has also long struggled with posts offering drugs illegally, promised earlier this month during a congressional hearing that they were cracking down on sales of opioids and other drugs, their services appeared to be open marketplaces for advertising such content. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said her company was “firmly against” such activity. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said he was “looking deeply” at how drug-selling spreads on the site.

But activists and other groups have warned tech companies about illegal drug sales on their platforms for years. In recent months, lawmakers, the Food and Drug Administration and some advertisers have stepped into the fray. In April, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb charged Internet companies with not “taking practical steps to find and remove opioid listings.” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called social media companies “reckless,” saying, “It is past time they put human life above profit and finally institute measures that crack down on these harmful practices, preventing the sale of illegal narcotics on or through their platforms. “

The prevalence of drug posts on social media – which the FDA says has helped fuel the opioid epidemic that claimed more than 40,000 lives in the United States last year – shows how tech companies are often outsmarted by the software they created. The algorithms that power social media spread illicit content – from illegal drug ads to misinformation and hate speech – faster than the companies know how to take it down. The most common features of social platforms, such as hashtags and algorithms that deliver personalized feeds, drive drug-sale posts directly to users who have expressed interest in them – potentially exposing the most vulnerable people to addictive drugs.

“Just as drug use rewires the brain to crave more of the substance, social media platforms have designed their sites in such a way that after a single search for an illicit drug, the algorithm gets rewired to advertise drugs to the already vulnerable user,” said Rick Lane, a longtime technology policy adviser who helped push legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA through Congress this year. That law holds technology companies liable for prostitution and sex-trafficking ads on their platforms. He is now pushing for similar legislation for drug ads.

Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, said Instagram was paying more attention to illegal sales of drugs because of a growing focus on safety and on preventing abuses of the company’s platform, from Russian meddling to fake news. “We’re not yet sophisticated enough to tease apart every post to see if it’s trying to sell someone illegal drugs or they are taking Xanax cause they are stressed out,” said Everson, referring to the company’s artificial intelligence technology. “Obviously, there is some stuff that gets through that is totally against our policy, and we’re getting better at it.”

Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger said late Monday that they were exiting the company. Adam Mossieri, a longtime deputy to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, is likely to become the photo-sharing app’s next leader, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Some of the emergent behaviors we’ve seen have presented a new challenge, and we’re focused on tackling them alongside law enforcement, our peers and the FDA,” said Twitter spokesman Ian Plunkett said.

Pharmaceutical companies are allowed to promote their brands on social media, but the process is highly regulated by the FDA, and companies and individuals are not allowed to sell actual drugs through social media.

Technology companies, which are lightly regulated compared with other industries, face the prospect of stricter rules if they cannot control the problems. During this month’s technology hearings, Manchin told the executives that his state had been hard-hit by opioid addiction and that he was interested in launching a bill modeled after the sex-trafficking law that would hold companies liable for drug dealing taking place on their services.

John Montgomery, executive vice president for global brand safety for the ad-buying giant GroupM, whose agencies work with companies such as Procter & Gamble and Target, said Instagram was moving too slowly. “With illegal pharma content, there is little nuance. So it should be possible to identify and block faster than we’ve seen,” he said.

Instagram has become one of the most potent platforms for drug marketing, said Libby Baney, senior adviser for the advocacy group Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies. Its growing use among teenagers as well as the service’s emphasis on visuals, its sophistication at personalizing content and its allowance of anonymous accounts have turned it into a hotbed of illegal promotion of drugs, she said.

Eric Feinberg, a researcher and the chief executive of GiPEC, a New York City-based cyberintelligence start-up that tracks illegal activity such as counterfeit goods and terrorist content on technology platforms, began hunting for drug posts in June by searching for obvious hashtags. He found hundreds of Instagram posts appearing alongside content from 60 different advertisers. Some of the Instagram dealers touted corresponding Twitter accounts, and Feinberg began tracking those accounts, too. Some of the Twitter accounts were even more brazen and had been up for years.

Once he followed the sellers’ accounts, Instagram’s algorithms began delivering posts marketing drugs directly into his feed, suggesting other drug sellers for him to follow and introducing him to additional hashtags that he used as clues. At one point, posts from sellers constituted about 40 percent of his feed, he said. Feinberg said he plans to sell his monitoring software, but his company doesn’t yet earn any revenue.

Facebook said Feinberg’s feed was not a real representation of what the vast majority of people see in their feeds, because he exclusively followed bad actors and some brands, prompting the company’s algorithm to cluster the two types of content together. “That being said, even a single piece of bad content on our platforms is one too many, and we’re working hard to improve our detection and enforcement,” Facebook spokesman Joe Benarroch said.

Most of the posts that appeared to be from dealers had a similar format: Photos of different types of drugs captioned with a string of hashtags and instructions to contact the account holder through a channel outside Instagram, such as email or messaging platforms Wickr, Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Kik. (Most drug posts included explicit instructions to avoid “DMs,” or direct messages, on Instagram itself. Such messages could be more easily traced.)

In recent months, Instagram took what it described as an extreme step by blocking search results for certain hashtags, such as #fentanyl, #cocaine and #heroin, even though that had the unwanted side effect of limiting people’s ability to seek support for substance abuse issues, Facebook’s Everson said. The hashtags can still be used and the posts can still be found through a person’s network, even though they are unavailable through a public search.

To get around blocked hashtags, sellers now market opioids under Xanax- and Adderall-related hashtags, many of which are searchable, Feinberg said. They also slightly tweak the spelling of drug names and include their contact details in the photos themselves, such as writing them on a piece of paper and then photographing it, to avoid software tools that can identify problematic keywords in a caption. Instagram appeared to suspend some hashtags when asked about them by The Washington Post.

Dealers appear to employ a “spray and pray” strategy designed to get around Instagram’s monitoring, Feinberg said. They post frequently, with individual posts getting a small number of likes before many were taken down by Instagram’s systems within 48 to 72 hours, often because users flagged them as problematic. As soon as one account was taken down, dealers created multiple Instagram accounts with similar names, such as a cluster including FoxPharm, FoxPharm12, FoxPharm69 and FoxPharm90, all featuring the same contact information.

Some appeared to have been created automatically, Feinberg said, suggesting the sellers are using bots. The different iterations of the name reminded him of Islamic State terrorist accounts and disinformation groups, which use a similar tactic.

“They are playing whack-a-mole here. They take them down, and then they come back again,” Feinberg said. “If [the tech companies] were really doing a full-court press, we wouldn’t keep finding what we are finding.”

Everson said Facebook and Instagram were in the early stages of developing artificial-intelligence tools that could flag drug content. She compared it to Facebook’s efforts, starting two years ago, to building AI software that it says can detect the majority of Islamic State accounts before people can see them. Now they are building visual classifiers that can recognize photographs of particular pills and detect common patterns, such as the inclusion of a phone number to move the transaction onto an encrypted messaging platform.

Facebook also gives advertisers tools to block their messages from appearing alongside certain publishers or categories of content, including tragedy or controversial social issues.

This month, Instagram also launched a pop-up notification that appears when someone searches hashtags for opioids, prescription medications or illegal drugs. The pop-up offers to connect people with free and confidential treatment referrals and information about substance use, prevention and recovery.

SOURCE: www.seattletimes.com/business