Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Insight + Preparation + Dumb Luck = Blockbuster

This blog has spilt plenty of bytes on the nasty consequences for GlaxoSmithKline, and for the industry, of the Avandia problem – but we haven’t said much about who’s likely to benefit. That part of the story we left to The RPM Report – and you can see that analysis here.

As Kate Rawson notes in that story, the two biggest big beneficiaries are Merck’s Januvia – the only DPP4 inhibitor on the market—and Amylin/Lilly’s Byetta. But Januvia is in many ways a more interesting business case study – and one we’ll talk about in a public fireside chat with Merck CEO Dick Clark at Windhover’s annual shindig in New York for the industry’s top business development executives, Pharmaceutical Strategic Alliances.

Clark -- pictured right -- ain't exactly the pin-up CEO. He's a manufacturing guy, from the blue-collar neighborhood of the drug industry. But he's managed a turnaround at the otherwise very white-collar Merck of impressive proportions, this being the company, that not so long ago, looked like a cartoon Gulliver hogtied by thousands of litigious Lilliputions.

And as Clark and I will discuss at the PSA meeting, much of that success is due to Januvia, the product of a nearly perfect blend of scientific insight and strategy, management skill and dumb luck.

Trailing Novartis by four years, Merck’s DPP4 team not only built a molecule that avoided one of the receptor subtypes hit by Novartis’ compound, Galvus, they managed to convince the FDA – although no one is saying so, publicly – that by doing so they’d made a safer drug. Thus Januvia never got hit with the FDA scrutiny Galvus did – and ended up with a safety label so compelling (a side-effect profile comparable to placebo) that this once-a-day pill, noted one diabetologist, has become “the first truly simple-minded therapy in diabetes.”

And probably the fastest beginning-to-end development program for any first-in-class primary-care drug in recent memory (seven years from discovery initiation to approval). Indeed, Clark and research chief Peter Kim had decided – given the company’s thin late-stage pipeline -- that Januvia was one of two drugs (the other was Gardasil, the cervical-cancer vaccine) absolutely crucial to Merck’s recovery from its disaster with Vioxx.

And so Clark created a multi-disciplinary task force around the compound, with its boss reporting directly to him. Bureaucratic hurdles fell away. And the launch was as nearly perfect as a major primary-care launch can be – five months after launch, the drug had captured a greater share of attention (nearly 40%) than nearly any of the recent successful primary-care launches. And it’s now on target for what analysts think could be $775 million in first-year sales.

(We should mention that Clark did the same thing – another multi-disciplinary task force reporting directly to him -- with Gardasil – on track for $1.5 billion in worldwide full first-year sales.)

And then there’s dumb luck. Januvia has been the extraordinary beneficiary of the misfortune of others--the Galvus approval delay, in the first place, and now Avandia. Merck therefore took 100% of the profit from the excitement Novartis helped generate around the arrival of a brand-new anti-diabetic class—but none of the negatives of Galvus’ apparent side-effects. Likewise, it’s taking the lion’s share of Avandia’s lost prescriptions.

And all of this despite the fact that Januvia ain’t that great a drug. Good as an add on. But not particularly powerful in itself. Instead, Januvia is the perfect drug for our era, when safety—particularly mixed with extreme simplicity--sells far better than efficacy alone.

The PSA conference will be a good time to question Clark on just how much a CEO matters in creating a blockbuster. We forecast his answer this way: some -- but dumb luck sure helps.

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