Friday, July 22, 2011

DOTW: It's Hot, Hot, Hot

There's nothing like a big deal to get the blood pumping, especially given the lassitude-inducing temperatures hitting most of the US. And just as journos were reminiscing about the good ol' days of hostile then friendly pharma-biotech tie-ups, Express Scripts and Medco deliver a deal with enough uncertainty to keep tongues wagging for months -- or at least until the FTC makes a ruling on whether the marriage merits its blessing.

Who knew pharmacy benefits could be so sexy?

As "The Pink Sheet", WSJ, Fortune, and other pubs have noted, anti-trust concerns are the primary question for investors. And given Medco's stock price mid-day July 22 -- shares were up 18% relative to the day before news of the tie-up broke but still well below Express Scripts' $71.36-a-share offer -- the market clearly believes this ain't a deal that will definitely get done.

Aside from the "Will they? Won't they?" questions tied to FTC, there are plenty of other uncertainties bubbling up (like apple pie fresh from the oven or hot asphalt on the Garden State Parkway). For starters, how will this deal impact drug companies and the kinds of rebates they need to offer to get their drugs covered by such a PBM behemoth? Ross Muken of Deutsche Bank estimates Express Scripts and Medco together process a whopping 35% of all US prescriptions and the WSJ's "Heard on the Street" column pegs the rebates both PBMs collected in 2010 at around $12 billion.

That's a lot of dough -- and could be a reason FTC will eye the merger sympathetically. Rebates after all get passed on to customers -- the employers and health plans who contract with the likes of Express Scripts and Medco to manage their pharmacy spend. Theoretically, the ability to negotiate better rebates means greater control over drug costs, one of the major factors tied to spiraling health care spend. Not surprisingly that was a message management from both PBMs played up in their joint conference call announcing the deal.

Of central interest to drug makers ought to be how a combined Express Scripts-Medco will negotiate rebates for specialty drugs like cancer medicines. Pharmas have doubled down on nichier areas because the high unmet medical need and grievous nature of diseases like cancer, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis has -- at least historically -- offered tremendous pricing freedom. That's starting to change; the increasing number of oncologics for renal cell cancer, for instance, means payers can choose -- based on efficacy and cost -- which medicines to prioritize without being crucified for denying care. With so much profit stemming from specialty medicines, drug makers are sure to be wary about the negotiating power of an enlarged Express Scripts: more rebating to get coverage for their meds will definitely start to eat into profits.

We'll have more to say about the implications for specialty drug spend in the coming issue of "The Pink Sheet", even as we try to understand another key unknown: how will this merger impact personalized medicine initiatives already underway at both companies?

With integration plans likely focused on simply making this massive entity work logistically, how much energy will be devoted to the interesting (but admittedly not explicitly bottom-line focused) research efforts spearheaded by Felix Frueh and company at Medco Research Institute? Paradoxically any de-emphasis on those initiatives ought to give drug cos something to cheer about. Frueh's team after all has helped resurrect warfarin use and the group looks to be doing the same thing in RA with methotrexate.

With so many questions, it's no wonder debate about the deal has reached a fevered pitch. While we dig for answers, bide your time with a spin through biopharma's latest wheeling and dealing. It's ...

AMAG/Allos: Mergers of equals can be a hard sell to shareholders (remember Biogen and Idec?). Thus it's hardly surprising that Wall Street -- and pundits -- reacted quickly and skeptically to the proposed merger between AMAG and Allos, announced July 20. Execs from both companies argue the deal helps their one-product companies move into the black, and speeds growth, helping to overcome the disappointing launches of the iron deficiency therapy Feraheme (AMAG), and oncology drug Folotyn (Allos). The companies plan to combine their sales forces to sell both drugs, via a combined team of about 75 reps. In addition, the companies claim they can achieve cost synergies of between $55 million to $60 million, by cutting R&D and administrative overhead. Yet it's hard to see the synergies afforded by two very different products. Can the sames sales reps really detail both products given the lack of overlap? Folotyn, after all, is a high-priced drug aimed at specialist doctors and a small patient population, while Feraheme has a much broader patient population and prescriber base. Thus, analysts worry the proposed merger resulted because the companies lacked any better options. (It's a case of 1+1 not even equaling 2, let alone the 3 you'd want to get to justify the integration upheaval.) It will be interesting to see if shareholders get fired up about the merger in the coming weeks; it wouldn't be surprising if significant AMAG investors like Palo Alto Investors and Adage Capital Partners objected. These firms could just as easily argue a dividend is more likely to add value than the proposed merger. --Lisa LaMotta and EFL

Pfizer/Icagen: Pfizer announced July 20 plans to buy its partner Icagen, which develops sodium ion channel modifiers for pain, as part of efforts to bolster the big pharma's capabilities in this therapeutic area and expand its newly created Neusentis research unit. Under the terms of the deal, Pfizer will acquire the outstanding 8.3 million shares of Icagen it does not already own for $6 per share. The deal is valued at $56 million, including the 11% of Icagen Pfizer already owns, the firms said. Recall the two companies have been partners since 2007 when they entered into a collaboration for the discovery, development and commercialization of compounds that modify three sodium ion channels. Over the next two years, Pfizer invested $38 million upfront, including $15 million in equity and $11 million in R&D funding. Meantime, Pfizer clearly believes there is significant market potential in new pain meds; just months after CEO Ian Read announced a restructuring to refocus Pfizer around its innovative core, the drug maker established Neusentis in Cambridge, England to develop new therapies for pain, sensory disorders and regenerative medicines. Ruth McKernan, who heads the newly minted CNS group, told "The Pink Sheet" DAILY Pfizer was increasingly interested in potential new therapies targeting ion channels. Based on this, she claims a strategic partnership with Icagen "made more sense" than relegating the biotech to working on just one or two programs. --Jessica Merrill

Allergan/Vicept Therapeutics: Wasn't it only last week that J. Michael Pearson, CEO of Valeant, notched two acquisitions in his quest to build that specialty-focused, anti-R&D outfit into an dermatological power-house "bigger than anyone else's"? Looks like Allergan is going to give Valeant a run for its money. The maker of Botox has been building its medical dermatology portfolio, and the acquisition this week of privately-held Vicept Therapeutics aids this ambition, providing the bigger spec pharma with V-101, a Phase II daily topical cream to treat the redness associated with rosacea. Under the terms of the deal, Allergan has agreed to pay $75 million upfront plus another $200 million in regulatory and development milestones. Vicept investors are also eligible to receive undisclosed payments should certain sales milestones be reached. That's a tidy -- and quick -- exit for Vicept's backers, which include Sofinnova, Vivo Ventures, and Fidelity Biosciences. The VCs only staked Vicept two years ago with a $16 million Series A, meaning the upfront payment alone affords them a 4.6x step-up on their venture dollars. (Add in the known earn-outs and the theoretical return jumps to around 17x.) With the entrance of Valeant as a prime derm player, the number of potentially interested acquirers of products in this space continues to increase. Long-considered a pharmaceutical back water with innovation essentially meaning reformulation of existing medicines into topicals, dermatology is enjoying a renaissance. Who knows? With a few more exits like Vicept's, this particular TA could have VCs crooning "I've got you under my skin."--EFL

BMS/Amira: The latest addition to Bristol-Myers Squibb’s pipeline-refreshing “string of pearls” strategy is Amira Pharmaceuticals, which BMS acquired July 21 for $325 million up-front. The deal, which could bring in another $150 million in milestone payments, centers on Amira’s fibrotic disease holdings, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and scleroderma treatment AM152. Scheduled to enter Phase II later this year, the drug is one of several racing to become the first approved IPF treatment in the US. BMS also gets Amira’s autotaxin program, which has shown preclinical promise in neuropathic pain and cancer metastases. The acquisition represents a strong exit for Amira stakeholders including Avalon Ventures, Prospect Venture Partners, Versant Ventures and Novo Ventures, which have supplied Amira with $28 million in two rounds since 2005. The deal doesn’t cover certain Amira assets which will be spun out, however; a new LLC shell company has been organized to collect ongoing revenues from an existing partnership with GSK around a Phase II asthma treatment, and another has been set up for its unpartnered asthma and COPD programs, which Avalon’s Kevin Kinsella said are likely to be sold. BMS will retain San Diego-based Amira’s key scientific staff following the deal. – Paul Bonanos

Image courtesy of flickrer Lori Greig via a creative commons license.

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