Thursday, May 10, 2007

Europe's Best-Kept Biotech Secret?

European investors pining for a biotech champion used to muse about the lack of a Genentech- or Amgen-equivalent on the Continent. (Despite Amgen's recent woes--of which you can read a detailed analysis in May's IN VIVO--a few probably still wish for one.)

But maybe some are overlooking what’s in their own back-yard. Shares in Denmark’s Novo-Nordisk have almost doubled in the last two years as the firm has quietly pushed to number one in the insulin market, beating big guys Eli Lilly and Sanofi-Aventis.

With sales of €5 billion ($10 billion) last year, and a market cap just short of $40 billion, Novo’s only half an Amgen. But its challenges aren’t half as big, either.

For one thing, Novo doesn't face a Mircera-equivalent competitive challenge to its insulin portfolio. Nor does it face safety issues--in part since insulin isn't widely used in indications outside diabetes. Insulin's also less expensive than many other protein drugs, so, although on payors' hit lists for bio-genericization, it faces not quite the same reimbursement risk as EPO. (That's probably why insulin is almost completely absent from European biosimilar firms' pipelines.)

Although patents on basic recombinant insulin are long gone (while Amgen still holds on to EPO and sons), engineered analogs have a while to run. And anyway, new entrants still struggle, it seems, even Pfizer-sized ones.

More importantly, the glucose-control pathway offers a related protein, GLP-1, for Novo to take mastery of. Glucagon-like peptide is a hormone that enhances insulin secretion in a glucose-dependent way. Shame for Novo that Lilly and Amylin are already there, selling first-in-class Byetta and doing fine, thank you.

Still, Novo's CSO Mads Thomsen told the IN VIVO Blog they can do better with likely second-to-market GLP-1 analog liraglutide; in terms of administration, dosing and side-effects. Meantime Novo is hedging its bets in the growth hormone space, in hemostasis management, and with newer efforts in inflammation and cancer.

But unlike Amgen, whose pipeline betrays a future with many more small molecules, and in many more therapeutic areas, Novo is sticking to its core capabilities—protein engineering. That’s why it yanked its oral anti-diabetic efforts in January (too competitive, too genericized, and what can follow Merck's Januvia anyway?).

Novo needs liraglutide to work as well as says it does. But if liraglutide does come good--we could know early in the second half of this year when the first batch of Phase III data is due--Novo may yet be likened to Europe’s Amgen. Albeit, perhaps, the Amgen of last year, not this year.

No comments: