Can cancer charity efforts from Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AbbVie and more boost pharma's reputation?

Big pharma companies signed on to two big-name cancer efforts—the NIH’s Cancer Moonshot and celebrity-heavy charity Stand Up To Cancer—that just might help burnish their industry’s standing.

Both cancer research groups are respected and popular causes with high-powered endorsements from well-known politicians, celebrities and researchers. But can that good will rub off onto pharma?

Wendy Blackburn, executive vice president at Intouch Solutions, said the partnerships are “a smart move” by the pharma companies.

“When pharmaceutical companies join these collaborative initiatives, it’s a win for everyone,” she said in an email interview. "Instead of creating their own initiative, which can seem narrow and self-serving, they’re demonstrating true altruism and perhaps helping bring treatments to market faster by supporting a cause already in motion. It’s also a catalyst for companies to collaborate with a broader collection of organizations—to pool innovations, ideas, and science—in ways not previously possible.”

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The Cancer Moonshot, which began under President Obama’s administration and led first by then-Vice President Joe Biden, last week created a new research partnership with 11 pharma companies in a five-year, $215 million deal. Each pharma partner will contribute $1 million per year into the Partnership for Accelerating Cancer Therapies effort, while NIH pitches in the remaining $160 million. The pharma companies involved are AbbVie, Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, Roche's Genentech, Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, Novartis and Pfizer.

In the Stand Up To Cancer initiative, another group of biopharma companies—with some overlap—joined its Catalyst group’s first clinical trial program, by donating funding and/or emerging or existing drug compounds, in the awarding of 10 academic research grants. Merck & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb and Roche’s Genentech are the three charter funding sponsors of the work, while AbbVie, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Iovance Biotherapeutics, Mirati Therapeutics, Prometheus Laboratories and Tesaro are also donating compounds that will be studied in combinations or financial support, SU2C said in a news release.

"These inaugural awards focus on immunotherapy compounds provided by Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Genentech," said Raymond DuBois, chair of the SU2C committee overseeing the effort, in a news release. "We've seen the astounding potential of immunotherapy, but it's still somewhat of a black box. We don't know why it only works for certain people and not for others."

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The pharma industry could use a reputation boost, as study after study has shown consumers' and patients' opinions of it have been in decline for years. In a recent PatientView study, only 29% of patient groups surveyed believe pharma has an “excellent” or “good” corporate reputation, the most negative rating in the U.S. since 2013.

Among general consumers, a Harris Poll from earlier this year found that only 9% of Americans believe that pharma and biotech companies put patients before profits. The rest of the healthcare industry didn’t fare much better, with only 16% of respondents reporting confidence that insurance companies put patients first, and 23% believing hospitals do. Still, the news was the worst for pharma—one of the few corporate industries whose reputation has been on a steady downtrend over the past four years, according to Nielsen's Harris Poll.