Stop the presses! Pfizer has done the unthinkable! The Big Pharma has upended its huge R&D operation!
Reading the headlines and tweets May 26, this blogger anticipated a dramatic pronouncement from Pfizer's head of R&D Mikael Dolsten explaining exactly how the behemoth intended to strengthen its "innovative core." But we were pretty sure Pilates wasn't part of the prescription.
It was just three months ago, after all, that newly installed CEO Ian Read announced sweeping budget cuts to the R&D organization and hinted that certain business units might be ripe for spinning out. But the R&D changes announced Thursday was more ho-hum than a humdinger.
In fact, it wasn't even an R&D shake-up at all. What Pfizer has instead done is winnow its myriad clinical service providers from 17 (!) to 2, moving to a system that is less about buying clinical trials capacity than it is about buying expertise. "We think that expertise can actually help us execute trials more effectively, faster, and with better quality, which will ultimately lower costs," Pfizer's SVP of development operations John Hubbard told "The Pink Sheet" DAILY.
With the looming patent expiration of Lipitor coming in November, there's no doubt Pfizer must cut costs. But it's hardly clear how much Pfizer will actually save via its newly announced preferred provider relationships with Icon and Parexel. It's not as if the drug maker is outsourcing significantly more of its total research and development work to outside organizations after all, a move that would allow for additional job eliminations -- and cost reductions -- in the R&D organization.
According to PSD, Pfizer will increase the percentage of clinical trials work it outsources by only about 10%, with the move really designed to streamline the management of vendors, something Hubbard admits is "complex." Thus, consider this not a revamping of how R&D is done but a consolidation of already outsourced development work into the hands of just a few players. As such, the move sounds a lot like Sanofi's broad 10-year collaboration with Covance. Announced last year, that alliance also met with sweeping headlines but was in reality a more prosaic realignment designed to reduce the complexity of managing development work.
We aren't saying Pfizer's newly announced arrangement isn't noteworthy-- or smart. We're just saying its iterative rather than innovative. (And, maybe, just plain old common sense.)
What's really smart about the set-up is that Pfizer didn't pick just one preferred provider. By signing on two different CROs (can we now call them clinical repair orgs?), the drug maker has created a situation that fosters competition. Financial details of the two new partnerships, which start in June and last until 2016, haven't been disclosed, but Pfizer is apparently keeping a scorecard that benchmarks how well Icon and Parexel each execute on their assigned trials. And as Pfizer gathers data on quality, timeliness -- and perhaps most importantly cost -- that means it can pit the two service providers against each other, potentially further increasing efficiencies. Five years from now, you can imagine CROs jockeying for position to be the next preferred vendor. To merit an alliance, such outfits will be forced to guarantee they can deliver "x" by time "y", and it will only cost "z".
It's a new kind of pay-for-performance arrangement -- and it's definitely a step in the right direction.
But it's far from the sexy R&D shake-up proclaimed in the blogosphere -- and still far from what Pfizer (or any other big pharma, quite frankly) needs to do to solve its moribund R&D productivity problem.
As for the larger changes afoot in Pfizer R&D, it's anybody's guess what model (or what acronym), the drug maker will pursue. We hear CEDDs are out and TAUs and TSUs are the new fashion. (Don't forget OI -- for open innovation -- either. JNJ's promising its externally driven model will yield fruit -- and plenty of products for regulatory approval by 2015.)
Whatever. To be honest, the acronym that most excites us is B-B-Q. Before you quaff your first summer pale ale of the holiday weekend, remember to read...
Elan/Proteostasis: Elan's tie-up this week with Proteostasis replicates last year's mega Celgene/Agios tie-up on a smaller scale. The new deal, potentially worth $50 million to the privately-held Proteostasis, requires Elan to pay $20 million upfront as well as $30 million for R&D expenses over the next five years. In return, the developer of the blockbuster multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri (natalizumab) gets a 24% stake in the U.S. biotech, seats on its board of directors and scientific advisory boards, and the first right to license any neurodegenerative compounds that come out of the collaboration. Yeah, that's right. The privately-held co. has agreed to an option-style deal that gives Elan first dibs on its potentially novel disease-modifying drugs in return for the security of funding. The deal is the first industry collaboration Proteostasis has signed since its splashy debut in 2008: a $45 million Series A financing from high-profile investors, including HealthCare Ventures, Fidelity Biosciences, New Enterprise Associates, Novartis Option Fund, and Genzyme Ventures. (Hmm, wonder what happens to any Novartis options as a result?) The company has stayed under the radar in the interim, using the time and considerable financial backing to build its platform, which is designed to target the biological pathways that regulate the correct folding or placement of proteins within a cell. (For more on protein folding and disease, check out this still-relevant Start-Up feature.) Proteostasis' molecules are still preclinical but the new alliance with Elan could accelerate the biotech's clinical development plans; that's because it marries the biotech's discovery technology with Elan's proprietary animal models, biology, med-chem and clinical development capabilities. --EL
Eli Lilly/BioCritica: Attention biopharma insiders! We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you news of that rare species observed in the Rx wilderness: the spin-out. On Monday May 23 came news that Eli Lilly was spinning out US development and commercial rights to its commercially underwhelming sepsis drug Xigris to private investors Care Capital and NovaQuest Capital. The new private company, which has been christened BioCritica, will focus initially on the continued development of Xigris but the ultimate goal is to create a portfolio of critical care medicines. To bolster its pipeline, BioCritica has the option to in-license other critical care compounds in preclinical development at Lilly as well as the right to acquire ex-US rights to Xigris. In exchange, Lilly will receive royalties on US sales of the drug and an equity stake in BioCritica. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.The decision to shed Xigris reflects Lilly's effort to focus development resources, according to the company. Though Xigris has been available commercially since 2001, its sales have not met Lilly's or Wall Street's expectations and Lilly has had a spate of expensive late-stage development snafus. BioCritica will continue Lilly's work on identification of the best uses of the controversial treatment, which has serious bleeding side effects and questionable efficacy in the broad sepsis patient population.--Jessica Merrill
Medco/Exagen: Can Medco do for methotrexate in rheumatoid arthritis what it's done for warfarin in the blood thinner market? An interesting alliance announced Monday May 23 between Medco's research institute and the privately-held Exagen Diagnostics shows that it is going to try. Exagen, which has raised a minimal amount of venture money since its 2002 founding, has developed proprietary software to discover and create predictive molecular tests that can aid in disease diagnosis, prognosis, or predict a likely treatment response. One of its tests, Avise PG, helps doctors and patients monitor the effectiveness of low-dose methotrexate therapy in rheumatoid arthritis patients. The oral anti-folate is, of course, decades old --it was first introduced as an oncologic in 1947 and became an important part of the RA armamentarium in the 1980s. And compared to newer TNF-alfa injectables like Humira or Remicade or Simponi the drug is definitely a cost-effective choice for treating the auto-immune disease. The problem is that establishing the right dosing regimen for patients isn't trivial, since individuals metabolize the medicine so differently. (Hmm, methotrexate's profile is starting to sound a lot like another cheap, effective, but difficult to use medicine: warfarin.) And if docs can't get the dosing right in a defined period of time, the default is to move to the costlier biologics. For payers who are increasingly concerned about the cost of specialty products -- and RA is an area of intense interest these days -- new tests that can promote the use of older, cheaper drugs are an obvious solution. But there's got to be data showing the utility. Enter Medco, whose research arm will recruit around 400 patients to participate in a pilot study (called Nimble) gauging the usefulness of Avise in RA patients beginning methotrexate therapy. Docs will send patient blood samples to Exagen's lab, which will conduct the Avise test, and report back on appropriate dosing; outcomes data will be compared to a similar cohort of patients who don't receive the Avise PG test. Why should the drug industry care? Medco's been resurrecting warfarin, conducting a series of observational studies gauging the utility of the medicine plus the genetic test versus newer, pricier drugs like Pradaxa. If the Medco/Exagen team can demonstrate the same utility for methotrexate, it's bad news for newer RA meds, creating a higher bar for adoption with payers.-- EL
Valeant/Sanitas & Watson/Specifar: Need growth? Try a branded generics firm in Central or Eastern Europe. That's the message from a duo of deals this week, both acquisitions by hitherto US-focused firms – and the first of more to come as US growth shrivels up, according to those familiar. Barely a week after Takeda finally confirmed it was forking out €9.6 billion to buy Nycomed, whose attractions also included its strength in CEE and Russia, Canadian specialty pharma Valeant announced it was paying €314 million cash for Lithuania's listed Sanitas, and Watson snapped up Greece's privately-held Specifar for €400 million, plus earn-outs linked to a tablet form of Nexium due to launch in some markets later this year. Europe's ultra-tough pricing and reimbursement environment may make it a graveyard for growth in innovative drugs, but there's plenty of upside in generics, particularly of the branded, specialist kind. The battle for Germany's ratiopharm, ultimately won in March 2010 by Teva, was one of the more high-profile asset-grabs in this field. Valeant had to pay almost four times' sales for Sanitas, a healthy multiple that reflects what was a "dynamic" auction process, according to someone close to the deal. The attraction: for starters, development prowess in dermatology, ophthalmology and hospital injectables (niche, high-margin drugs), formulation expertise, some pipeline, and a portfolio that's 80% non-reimbursed (thus circumventing the government pricing pressures). The deal furthers Valeant's stated goal of doing at least five ex-US deals this year, and follows the February 2011 acquisition of PharmaSwiss, which provided a commercial infrastructure in Eastern Europe. If Sanitas shareholders think they did well, how about Specifar's: Watson appears to have paid over five times 2010 revenues for this group, based in a country whose economy is falling apart and where generic penetration is one of the lowest in Europe. Most of Specifar's revenues come from developing and out-licensing products worldwide, and it’s highly profitable, according to a source involved in the deal. So Watson has paid for a European R&D engine to bolster the sales infrastructure and starter revenue-base it started to establish via its $1.8 billion cash and stock deal in 2009 for Western-European based Arrow. --Melanie Senior
Nestlé/Prometheus Labs: Via its newly formed Nestlé Health Science subsidiary, global food products conglomerate Nestlé SA is buying specialty pharma and diagnostics provider Prometheus Labs as part of its goal of developing personalized nutrition strategies that will help in the management and prevention of chronic health conditions, according to the company’s announcement of the deal. Prometheus, which had been looking to go public, generated revenues of $519 million in 2010 including $316.5 million from the sales of the glucosteroid Entocort EC for Crohn’s disease, which Prometheus licensed from AstraZeneca for the US market in 2004. Prometheus also began distributing Novartis’ cancer drug Proleukin in the US in February 2010, which brought in $64 million. The diagnostic services business, comprising GI tests to differentiate irritable bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn’s from other disorders and oncology services to guide the use of targeted therapies, accounted for $81.3 million for the year, according to an S-1 amendment filed in February 2011. The companies are silent on the deal price, which an analyst cited in a Bloomberg report put at somewhere north of $587 million. Nestlé has also recently added Vitaflo, a maker of nutritional products aimed at individuals with genetic disorders that affect how the body processes food, and CM&D Pharma, which produces IBD, kidney disease, and cancer-related nutritional foods. But unlike those others, the Prometheus acquisition is aimed at the physician market. Nestlé is one of several food and consumer products companies thinking about ways it can leverage its marketing and distribution capabilities to deliver medical diagnostics and personalized medicine. Unilever has engaged the VC firm Physic Ventures to explore opportunities in the area, and for years, Procter & Gamble has maintained a notable presence at personalized medicine meetings. – Mark Ratner
(Image courtesy of flickrer Scott Ingram used with permission through a creative commons license.)