Jan 12, 2024 - Health

What to watch in health care in 2024: Obesity drugs, AI

Illustration of a medical red cross under spotlights on a stage.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Obesity drugs, buzzy new technology — including AI — and San Francisco's larger social and political problems, especially its homeless population, were the unavoidable topics at JPMorgan Chase's massive health care conference this year.

Why it matters: The 8,000-plus attendees at the annual event are a who's who in the health care industry, and the buzz in the hallways is a good barometer for the rest of the year.

  • More than $10 billion in deal announcements pretty much set the tone for the week.

Yes, but: Questions about how patients and taxpayers will afford all of this innovation remain the elephant in the room.

  • And outside of the room — in this case, the luxe Westin St. Francis on San Francisco's Union Square — it was impossible to avoid jarring reminders that the most vulnerable people, for one reason or another, still don't get even the most basic of care.

Obesity treatments like GLP-1s, the new class of weight-loss drugs that Ozempic belongs to, are seen by drugmakers as having massive potential.

  • The biggest problem facing the manufacturers, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, is being able to make enough supply to meet the enormous demand.
  • But society has to figure out how to afford the drugs, a math problem complicated by the fact that it's still unclear how long patients should take them. Evidence suggests that when people quit taking the drugs, they regain weight.
  • "It's not like we can just print $100 billion to pay for this," said Sarah Emond, president and CEO of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review and a member of a JPM panel on GLP-1s.

What we're watching: Data is still being collected about their impact on a wide range of other diseases — which means demand is likely to only increase over time.

  • If it turns out that they can reduce the risk of strokes, heart attacks, kidney disease or a host of other conditions, it would make the class the closest thing to a silver bullet the health care world has seen in a long time, if not ever.
  • A recent clinical trial readout showing an impact of GLP-1s on cardiovascular symptoms among overweight and obese people could signal a watershed moment.
  • "It's going to be something my kids read about one day if they take a medical history class," said Diana Thiara, medical director for UCSF's weight management program and another member of the JPM panel.

AI and computing tools to fuel drug discovery got the hype treatment from Nvidia, the massive chipmaker with a booming AI business.

  • Kimberly Powell, the vice president of health care at Nvidia — which has partnered with several biotechs — hyped up the ability of the company's AI and computing tools to massively improve drug discovery and design.
  • "Accelerated computing and generative AI make possible this digital biology era," Powell said during a packed JPM presentation."This will be what helps build the world's first trillion-dollar drug company," she added.
  • Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb predicted later in the week at an event hosted by Nvidia and Recursion Pharmaceuticals, one of its biotech partners, that more drugs will go into development this year that are "wholly derived" from AI and machine learning.

Reality check: Though there was lots of talk about tech and pharma, the dealmaking can obscure the bigger picture.

  • "JPM is a really good microcosm of the way that we talk about health care, where drugs are like 10 cents of every health care dollar but they're 90 percent of our conversation," a JPM veteran and PR adviser to several health care companies told Axios.

Editor's note: This story was updated with Sarah Emond's current title.

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