Thursday, July 26, 2007

Schwan Song

Roche’s announcement that Severin Schwan, the head of its Diagnostics division, is set to succeed Franz Humer as CEO of the Roche Group next March came just hours after we’d filed a story for the upcoming issue of IN VIVO looking at Roche’s recent acquisitions, including its ongoing $3 billion hostile tender offer for anatomic pathology specialist Ventana Medical Systems. Given his recent history in diagnostics, the Schwan news would’ve made an excellent punch line to the article, which talks about the firm’s belief in diagnostics and its bet that personalized medicine--an area where innovative platforms and molecular test content will play significant if separate roles—will be key to its long-term growth.

This past Monday, the IN VIVO Blog also cited a rumor that Novartis could be grooming Joerg Reinhardt, the head of its vaccines and diagnostics businesses, as successor to CEO Dan Vasella.

Is it a coincidence that both firms are turning to Dx veterans? Novartis doesn’t have an in vitro diagnostics business anything like the scope of Roche’s, nor does it have a life sciences research tools unit. But Novartis knows blood banking, to which it has applied a nucleic-acid test (NAT) based platform for virology testing. And like Roche, Novartis has a significant investment in targeted cancer therapies, for which companion diagnostics are assumed to play a vital part. (Ventana, for example, markets a molecular test to gauge patients’ potential to respond to Novartis’ Gleevec).

So maybe it's a good time to examine Roche’s strategy.

Unlike other Big Pharmas (including Novartis), Roche has dedicated itself to the in-house development of companion tests. Its molecular diagnostics unit has developed know-how around adapting microarray technology to clinical diagnostics--one of the most complex aspects of the approval process for drug-diagnostic tandems--via a series of collaborations with Affymetrix, leading to tests for mutations in the p450 and cystic fibrosis genes. Roche is applying the same tools to developing its own drugs, including a p53 diagnostic for a cancer drug that binds wild type p53. And before Roche took rights to Plexxikon’s PLX4032 cancer program, which inhibits a gene mutation present in roughly two-thirds of melanomas, the two companies had begun a diagnostics collaboration around a molecular test for the mutation. Indeed, one reason Roche paid so much for the Plexxikon compound was that the companion diagnostic could dramatically expand its market into solid tumors by targeting the same mutation in those far more common cancers.

Roche has the free cash to invest in its diagnostics businesses and is clearly aiming at personalized medicine as a principal way to bolster them long term – and importantly, also support the development of targeted drugs on its pharmaceutical side. On the conference call discussing the Ventana tender offer Schwan said flatly that Roche wants it for strategic reasons relating to its drug business. The Ventana deal “is very much driven by the synergies we have on the R&D side, by the development of targeted medicines. The real value is that we can leverage the different capabilities across the entire Roche Group,” he said. “The earlier you start the exchange of ideas between pharma research and diagnostics, the better chance you have to come in parallel with the development of a companion diagnostic,” added Roche CFO Erich Hunziker.

It’s long been held that pharma holds all the leverage when it comes to drug-diagnostics partnerships. But the demand for innovative test content to run on molecular diagnostics platforms is increasing: witness the recent upswing in deal-making, along with renewed VC interest in diagnostics. It suggests that the area's potential to drive health-care innovation by directing therapy more efficiently is finally being recognized. Even Abbott Labs noted this when, in the wake of the breakup of GE Healthcare’s bid to acquire Abbott's diagnostics businesses, Ed Michael, Abbott’s newly appointed head of diagnostics, commented to us that there are synergies between all of its diagnostics divisions--especially between the molecular and point-of-care testing businesses.

So if pharma companies truly believe in the vision – and more to the point, the necessity -- of personalized medicine, and if the development of tandem drug-diagnostic combos is best started early in development, it makes sense they’d want their senior executives to have hands-on experience with the ins and outs of diagnostics development. Finally.

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