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J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference returns to San Francisco

Rare disease M&A’s, on-site enthusiasm mark 2023 meeting

by Gina Vitale
January 12, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 2


An entrance to the Westin St. Francis. Several people, many wearing suits and lanyards, stand outside.
Credit: Gina Vitale/C&EN
J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference attendees, meeting in-person for the first time since 2020, crowd around the Westin St. Francis.

After 2 years of virtual meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference returned in full force to San Francisco Jan. 9–12. Color- coded lanyards, eye-popping hotel prices, and meeting rooms packed with attendees eager for company updates were back in abundance; so too were the deals that make the event a stage setter for the coming year in pharma.

Sizable international acquisitions of companies working to treat rare disease set the tone early in the week. On Sunday, Jan. 8, before the conference’s official start, the Italian company Chiesi Farmaceutici said it is purchasing the rare disease firm Amyrt for up to $1.48 billion. The next day, the French firm Ipsen announced its acquisition for about $952 million of Albireo, a specialist in therapies for pediatric and adult cholestatic liver diseases. Both Chiesi and Ipsen say the deals will strengthen their rare disease portfolios.

“It’s definitely a stronger showing of deals this year in terms of value,” Sara LaFever, executive director of research and commercial support at the pharmaceutical intelligence firm Citeline, says via email. As of Jan. 11, companies had announced five acquisitions, she says, compared with only two during the 2022 conference. There were six in 2021, but they averaged only about $6.8 million in potential value versus this year’s average of $1.2 billion, she says. LaFever notes that as of Jan. 11 there hadn’t been a big oncology acquisition at this year’s meeting.

The big pharma firm AstraZeneca announced Jan. 9 that it will buy CinCor Pharma, a company developing treatments for hypertension and chronic kidney disease, for up to $1.8 billion. The deal places CinCor’s baxdrostat, a drug candidate for reducing blood pressure in treatment-resistant hypertension, in AstraZeneca’s pipeline.

You see friends, you see collaborators, you make new collaborators, you see a tremendous [amount] of innovation.
Christian Rommel, head of research and development, Bayer’s pharmaceuticals division

Several attendees expressed enthusiasm at the return to the conference’s on-site format. Christian Rommel, head of research and development for Bayer’s pharmaceutical division, said it’s “fantastic” to be back in person. “You see friends, you see collaborators, you make new collaborators, you see a tremendous [amount] of innovation,” he said.

Stephen Kanes, CEO of EmbarkNeuro, had a similar reaction. Seeing others at the conference “can’t be replaced with a Zoom or remote meeting,” he said. “So it really is terrific.”

Bernard Munos, a senior fellow at the think tank FasterCures, noted two attitudes coming out of the conference: short-term pessimism about the inability to raise funds and long-term optimism about the plethora of opportunity in scientific innovation. He is “in the camp of the optimists,” he says via email. “Good science will get funded—it always does—and will deliver innovation that will profoundly change pharma.”



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