Friday, May 14, 2010

DotW: Hard Truths

The feverish networking associated with BIO is but a distant memory this week as biopharma’s deal makers got back to work forging alliances or acquisitions that will provide the necessary substrate for future growth.

That this growth won’t come easily is a given. And the week’s news flow only reinforced the notion, illustrating hard truths about the commercial and regulatory complexities at work in the biopharma industry.

Who among us got bitten by reality? For starters, Takeda’s decision to cut nearly 1600 jobs illustrates the problem many Japanese pharma will be facing as their primary care drugs go generic in the coming years. Investors meanwhile pummelled NicOx, after an FDA advisory committee gave its osteoarthritis medicine naproxinod a thumb’s down. The company is pushing ahead as it awaits an official regulatory decision (the drug’s PDUFA date is July 24). Still it’s hard to believe a partner for the medicine will come anytime soon.

And Merck's quietly announced decision to call off development of MK-2578, its follow-on to Amgen’s erythropoietin stimulating agent Aranesp, showcases how difficult it can be to predict the potential market of a biosimilar. The ESA market has been under considerable pressure for some time as regulators have raised safety concerns about the products, first in the oncology setting, and now more recently in end stage renal disease. (See the May issue of The RPM Report for a Q&A with FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Bob Temple for more on the subject.)

It’s a sure bet use of ESAs will go down, not only because of the emerging cardiovascular risks, but also because of the shift toward capitated care in end-stage renal disease that kicks in early next year. Under the new bundling guidelines, there’s pressure on physicians to use ESAs more judiciously, bolstering patients’ anemia via other mechanisms including intravenous iron use. With the commercial viability of ESAs a question, Merck must have run the numbers and determined the amount it would recoup from an Aranesp follow-on (which is expected to be priced at a slight discount to the innovator ESAs but still expensive) didn’t justify the expensive clinical trials it would have to conduct to demonstrate the medicine’s safety.

That big pharmas are wising up to such commercial hurdles ever earlier is a good thing; better to kill a product before you’ve sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the expensive Phase III. That’s probably cold comfort to the Merck Bioventures group, which has ambitious launch goals for a spate of follow-on products by 2015.

As you contemplate other hard truths (a widening oil spill, the Greek debt crisis, the odds of Great Britain’s coalition government succeeding, the Cavs loss to that Boston team), take a brief respite into transactions land. (Reality may still bite the hand that feeds, but DotW is on its best behavior--for once.) It’s time for another edition of…

Genentech/Evotec: Evotec signed a broad multi-year discovery deal this week with Genentech to identify novel small molecule therapeutics. Further important details, including the financials as well as the therapeutic focus of the alliance, were lacking. Given Genentech’s focus on oncology, and increasingly Alzheimer’s disease and other CNS diseases, presumably Evotec’s technology will be used to develop small molecules in these arenas. Despite the dearth of specifics, the alliance is worth noting for a couple of reasons. First, Evotec’s business model seems to run counter to the collective belief that a biotech’s value is driven not by its technology but from the products derived from its platform. Indeed, as Evotec’s recent deals suggest—in addition to Genentech its signed discovery alliances with Vifor Pharma, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Active Biotech, and Biogen Idec—management is clearly betting there is more near-term value to be gained from discovering drugs for other companies than in investing in its own pipeline. Second, how the deal proceeds will provide a window into dealmaking at Genentech, which only recently brought on a new head of business development, James Sabry, and continues to forge alliances independent of its Swiss parent. It’s interesting to note that Roche proper is well known to Evotec. The two companies have been collaborating in CNS since 2006, and Evotec is now conducting Phase II trials of EVT101 for treatment resistant depression, with Roche picking up the development costs.—Ellen Foster Licking

Abbott/Zydus Cadila: Abbott’s deal this week with India’s Zydus Cadila is a gift of DotW’s favoring buzz words, including branded generics, established products (a more diplomatic term for generic products), and emerging markets. The news is proof yet again that many big pharmas are following the lead of Sanofi-Aventis and GlaxoSmithKline, which have been the most aggressive in building a commercial presence in “pharmergent” economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China via branded generics. As part of the recently announced alliance, Abbott will sell 24 Zydus drugs for pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory ailments and neurological disorders in 15 emerging markets. Many, though not all, of the licensed drugs will be in complementary therapeutic areas to Abbott's existing branded generics portfolio, which came to the diversified health care giant via its Solvay and Knoll acquisitions. Specific financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but should the collaboration be a success, Abbott has the option to license more than 40 additional products. In conjunction with the deal, Abbott also announced the creation of a stand-alone established products division with $5 billion in current pharmaceutical sales. The business unit will be led by Michael Warmuth, the former head of Abbott’s diagnostics division. Two years ago, Pfizer set up a similar stand-alone unit as a strategy to cope with flagging US drug sales, especially come 2011 when its cholesterol-lowering medicine Lipitor goes off patent. And that group was also a force at the dealmaking table this week, strengthening its ongoing collaboration with India-based Strides Arcolab (announced earlier this year) via the signing of two licensing and supply agreements. In part one, Strides has agreed to license and supply 38 generic oncology meds to Pfizer in various markets, including the EU, Canada, and Australia. Part two gives Pfizer access to niche sterile injectables for the US market.—Jessica Merrill and EFL

Pfizer/Ergonex: It’s not all about extending the life cycle of established products at Pfizer these days. This week the biggest big pharma’s specialty care business unit inked a deal with Ergonex Pharma for the biotech’s Phase II product terguride, which is in development as a treatment for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). The agreement gives Pfizer world-wide rights (excluding Japan) to the product; in exchange Pfizer will support the ongoing mid-stage clinical trial, taking full control of the compound at the study’s completion. While Pfizer isn’t sharing specific financial details, it will pay Ergonex undisclosed milestones and sales royalties. Terguride, which has an orphan drug designation in the US and the EU, is an oral antagonist antagonist of the 5-HT2B and 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, shutting down signals triggering fibrosis and the narrowing of pulmonary arterial walls that over time results in PAH. The medicine is already approved in Japan for the treatment of hyperprolactinemia.—EFL

Genzyme/Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biotechnology and Medicine (TJAB): Another week, another biopharma looks to ink a discovery deal in China. This week it’s Genzyme’s turn to trumpet a strategic partnership with TJAB, which has an impressive list of co-founders, including China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, its Ministry of Commerce, its Ministry of Health, and the State Food and Drug Administration (China’s equivalent of the US FDA). The partnership was apparently celebrated with the requisite pomp and circumstance, including an official signing ceremony attended by top Chinese officials and senior R&D types from Genzyme. This isn’t the first time Genzyme has traveled east to ink a collaboration. Back in 2007 the biotech signed a deal with Sunway Biotech to develop and commercialize Genzyme’s most advanced gene therapy candidate, Ad2/HIF-1a, which is being tested as a treatment for various forms of peripheral arterial disease. The big biotech is also in the process of building a $100 million R&D center in Beijing, with construction scheduled for completion in 2011. In a small way, the agreement offers the beleaguered Cambridge-based Genzyme an opportunity to shift the news cycle away from the forthcoming annual shareholder meeting and Termeer’s ability to withstand pressures from activist shareholder Carl Icahn who is pushing for his removal.--EFL

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