Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Can a Sleep Drug Awaken Demand from European Consumers?

Superficially, it’s paradoxical.

Sepracor wouldn’t sell US marketing rights to its sleep drug Lunesta, even though it could probably have gotten a great deal. And then last week it goes and sells European rights to GSK for just $20 million upfront and another $135 million in milestones?

OK, that’s by no means a true yawner. But it’s hardly a wake-up call in this age of colossal licensing fees and milestones. VX950, the barely post-proof-of-concept hepatitis C candidate from Vertex, fetched $165 million upfront, and $380 million in pre-commercial milestones for merely European rights. Why didn’t Lunesta, with US sales approaching $600 million, do at least the equivalent?

Because the comparison isn’t at all fair. Hep C is a life-threatening disease currently treated with a couple of inadequate, problematic therapies. Insomnia is probably just as big a market -- but is less important to doctors than it is to patients (for some background on the insomnia markets and related dealmaking, see our coverage here and here).

And that’s precisely the challenge. In the US, Sepracor sets its own price and then can spend hundreds of millions of dollars getting its message out to consumers. In Europe and Japan it can do neither.

Which means that Lunesta will have a lot more commercial risk outside the US than something like VX950. GSK’s $20 million bet on the product isn’t exactly trivial, but it isn’t a huge vote of confidence that European insomniacs and their doctors will clamor for Lunivia (European for Lunesta) in the face of a host of generics like racemic zopiclone, Ambien, and a number of benzodiazepines.

And it’s why so much of the deal’s $135 million in milestones apparently depends not merely on getting a centralized approval, but on getting reasonable levels of pricing from various European countries. Sepracor could still make plenty of money: we estimate that it’s getting what might, on a blended basis, work out to a 15% royalty (the rate increases with sales) plus another 10-15% profit on selling the material to GSK. But Sepracor will only make money if the drug is successful.

Thus the $20 million upfront fee represents a cautious gamble that Lunesta’s data package will not only pass muster with the EMEA, but will convince the national reimbursement groups that they should pay a premium for a drug that can be used chronically and which comes with a host of data showing its beneficial effects on insomnia-associated co-morbidities, like depression.

Same thing in Japan, where a pricing milestone on Lunesta is also a key part of the value in the deal Sepracor signed in July with Eisai. The upfront in that deal was probably considerably smaller than what GSK paid: not only is the market about half the size of Europe, the product has to jump through more clinical hoops before it can be approved. In any event, the Eisai terms were undisclosed, which means they weren’t material.

Financially material that is. Sepracor is certainly hoping they’ll be seen as strategically material. The company has recently been a punching bag for investors, taking particularly heavy punishment when new CEO Adrian Adams lowered revenue expectations for 2007 during the company’s July earnings call.

Thus the biggest value to the deals may yet be validation for Sepracor’s ability to take a product developed in the US and convince leading CNS companies they can rely on the company’s US clinical and marketplace work to win approval for, and successfully commercialize, a consumer-driven product in markets where consumers don’t rule.

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