Pfizer is, according to today's Wall Street Journal (not to mention at least one astute blogger last week), giving up on R&D in heart disease, obesity and bone health.
The big news here is the abandoning of cardiovascular medicine--Pfizer's profit center driven by $17+ billion annual revenues from Lipitor and Norvasc--but of course there are exceptions to consider. Pfizer isn't dropping its late-stage programs, like the much-written about apixaban, for example.
But the strategic shift, not wholly unexpected and certainly not conflicting with statements made by Pfizer leadership lately (including comments by R&D chief Martin Mackay and head of strategy Bill Ringo at FDC/Windhover's Pharmaceutical Strategic Alliances meeting last week) says a lot about where Pfizer--and Big Pharma generally--is moving.
Where's that? Toward a greater emphasis on specialty therapeutic spaces like oncology (look for a feature on Pfizer's oncology ambitions in the next IN VIVO) and into large molecules like next-generation biologics, of course. By now this is not a surprise, but just how Big Pharma manages to transform itself while at the same time dealing with massive patent expirations and the demands of dividend- and buyback-hungry shareholders remains to be seen. Nevertheless, pulling out of the increasingly genericized cardiovascular space and some other primary care areas should speed this transition.
Some of the smaller top-tier companies, like Bristol-Myers Squibb, can make do with focused business development strategies--the acquisition of Adnexus, for example, or the please-let-it-be-over-soon-we're-so-sick-of-it Imclone takeover. For Pfizer such add-ons won't do the trick. But Bill Ringo noted at PSA that although Pfizer on the whole would have trouble moving the growth needle with a string-of-pearls strategy akin to BMS's, it could do so within the context of specific disease areas. Cardiovascular R&D is clearly not one of those areas.
Layoffs are likely (as of now still no official word from Pfizer on the cuts). But look also for more Pfizer spin-outs like the Japanese business RaQualia and the second incarnation of Esperion, as well as out-licensing deals, to help smooth the transition. Pfizer has, by its own estimates, too substantial a Phase II pipeline to take through to pivotal trials. "We need to be more creative with development," noted Mackay at PSA, and he said RaQualia was a good example of that creativity at work, as was the apixaban deal, which could be replicated in the other direction with Pfizer partnering on one of its own Phase III candidates. What should be worrying to Pfizer and other pharmas is that despite a Phase II glut these companies have a difficult time determining which post-proof-of-concept projects will succeed in Phase III and at the regulators.
Pfizer isn't the first pharma to abandon what most would consider its core therapeutic space. GSK and AstraZeneca, for example, sustained for years by the profits from GI franchises, each exited the bulk of their R&D in that area (witness AZ's spin-out of Albireo, though that pharma has noted it remains active in GERD research whereas Pfizer seems unlikely to continue in hypercholesterolemia R&D).
So where does the Tin Man turn when his new ticker gets rusty? And where do those small pharma and biotech companies in need of a partner for their next-big-thing HDL raiser or anti-hypertensive turn? In this up-is-down, black-is-white pharma shift to specialist drugs, perhaps primary care becomes the domain of a few specialists while the rest of the industry piles into oncology and orphan drugs.
One further irony: even as its exits cardiovascular research, Pfizer wants to remain one of those few remaining primary-care specialists. Bill Ringo noted exactly that at the PSA and in this article in IN VIVO -- as other Big Pharmas cut back primary-care commercial programs to boost their presence in specialist marketing, Pfizer, while certainly doing the specialist thing, is going to keep its primary-care capabilities, theoretically giving itself a comparative advantage as an in-licenser when it comes to those increasingly rare, and expensive, late-stage primary care candidates.