A homegrown Indian biologic manufacturer is now about to leave behind its first foot-print, with a ‘made in India’ biosimilar drug, in one of the largest pharma market of the world. This was indeed an uncharted frontier, and a dream to realize for any Indian bio-pharma player.
On March 28, 2016, by a Press Release, Bengaluru based Biocon Ltd., one of the premier biopharmaceutical companies in India, announced that the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) of Japan has approved its biosimilar Insulin Glargine in a prefilled disposable pen. The product is a biosimilar version of Sanofi’s blockbuster insulin brand – ‘Lantus’.
The Company claims that Glargine is a high quality, yet an affordable priced product, as it will reportedly cost around 25 percent less than the original biologic brand – Lantus. This ‘made in India’ biosimilar product is expected to be launched in Japan in the Q1 of 2017. Incidentally, Japan is the second largest Glargine market in the world with a value of US$ 144 Million. Biocon will co-market this product with its partner Fujifilm.
Would it be a free run?
Although it is a very significant and well-deserved achievement of Biocon, but its entry with this biosimilar drug in Japan’s Lantus market, nevertheless, does not seem to be free from tough competition. This is because, in 2015, both Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim also obtained Japanese regulatory approval for their respective biosimilar versions of Lantus. In the same year, both these companies also gained regulatory approval from the US-FDA, and the European Medicine Agency (EMA) for their respective products.
Moreover, Sanofi’s longer acting version of Lantus – Lantus XR, or Toujeo, to treat both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, has already been approved in Japan, which needs to be injected less, expectedly making it more convenient to patients.
Key barriers to a biosimilar drug's success:
Such barriers, as I shall briefly outline below, help sustaining monopoly of the original biologic even after patent expiry, discourage investments in innovation in search of biosimilars, and adversely impacts access to effective and much less expensive follow-on-biologics to save patients’ precious lives.
These barriers can be broadly divided in two categories:
A. Regulatory barriers:
1. Varying non-proprietary names:
A large number of biosimilar drug manufacturers, including insurers and large pharmacy chains believe, just as various global studies have also indicated that varying non-proprietary names for biosimilars, quite different from the original biologic, as required by the drug regulators in the world’s most regulated pharma markets, such as, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia, restrict competition in the market for the original biologic brands.
However, the innovator companies for biologic drugs hold quite different views. For example, Roche (Genentech), a developer of original biologic, reportedly explained that “distinguishable non-proprietary names are in the best interest of patient safety, because they facilitate Pharmacovigilance, and mitigate inadvertent product substitution.”
Even, many other global companies that develop both original biologic and also biosimilar products such as, Amgen, Pfizer and others, also reportedly support the use of ‘distinguishable nonproprietary names’.
That said, the Biosimilars Council of the Generic Pharmaceutical Association argues that consistent non-proprietary naming will ensure robust market formation that ultimately supports patient access, affordability, Pharmacovigilance systems currently in place and allow for unambiguous prescribing,
2. Substitution or interchangeable with original biologics:
Besides different ‘non-proprietary names’, but arising primarily out of this issue, automatic substitution or interchangeability is not permitted for biosimilar drugs by the drug regulators in the major pharma markets of the world, such as, the United States, Europe and Japan.
The key argument in favor of interchangeability barrier for biosimilar drugs is the fact that the biological drugs, being large protein molecules, can never be exactly replicated. Hence, automatic substitution of original biologic with biosimilar drugs does not arise. This is mainly due to the safety concern that interchangeability between the biosimilars and the original biologic may increase immunogenicity, giving rise to adverse drug reactions. Hence, it would be risky to allow interchangeability of biosimilar drugs, without generating relevant clinical trial data.
On the other hand, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association (GPhA) and the Biosimilars Council, vehemently argue that a biosimilar drug has a lot many other unique identifying characteristics “including a brand name, company name, a lot number and a National Drug Code (NDC) number that would readily distinguish it from other products that share the same nonproprietary name.”
Further, the interchangeable status for biosimilar drugs would also help its manufacturers to tide over the initial apprehensions on safety and quality of biosimilar drugs, as compared to the original ones.
3. 12-year Data Exclusivity period for biologics in the United states:
Currently, the new law for biologic products in the United States provides 12 years of data exclusivity for a new biologic. This is five years more than what is granted to small molecule drugs.
Many experts believe that this system would further delay the entry of cost-effective biosimilar drugs, restrict the biosimilar drug manufacturers from relying on the test data submitted to drug regulator by the manufacturers of the original biologic drugs while seeking marketing approval.
A rapidly evolving scenario in the United States:
The regulatory space for approval of biosimilar drugs is still evolving in the Unites States. This is vindicated by the fact that in March 2016, giving a somewhat positive signal to the biosimilar drug manufacturers, the US-FDA released another set of a 15-page draft guidelines on how biosimilar products should be labeled for the US market. Interestingly, it has come just around a year of the first biosimilar drug approval in the United States – Zarxio (filgrastim-sndz) of Novartis.
The US-FDA announcement says that all ‘comments and suggestions regarding this draft document should be submitted within 60 days of publication in the Federal Register of the notice announcing the availability of the draft guidance.’ Besides labeling issues, this draft guidance document, though indicates that the ‘interchangeability’ criteria will be addressed in the future, does not still throw enough light on how exactly to determine ‘interchangeability’ for biosimilar drugs.
That said, these key regulatory barriers are likely to continue, at least in the foreseeable future, for many reasons. The biosimilar drug manufacturers, therefore, would necessarily have to work within the set regulations, as applicable to different markets of the world.
I deliberated a related point in my article of August 25, 2014, titled “Scandalizing Biosimilar Drugs With Safety Concerns”
B. Prescribers’ skepticism:
Initial skepticism of the medical profession for biosimilar drugs are, reportedly, due to the high voltage advocacy of the original biologic manufacturers on the ‘documented variability between original biologic and biosimilars. Which is why, any substitution of an original biologic with a related biosimilar drug could lead to increase in avoidable adverse reactions.
‘The medical platform and community QuantiaMD’, released a study just around September 2015, when by a Press Release, Novartis announced the launch of the first biosimilar approved by the US-FDA – Zarxio(TM) (filgrastim-sndz). However, in 2006, Novartis after suing the US-FDA, got the approval for its human growth hormone – Omnitrope, which is a biosimilar of the original biologic of Genentech and Pfizer. At that time a clear regulatory guideline for biosimilar drugs in the United States, was not in place.
The QuantiaMD report at that time said, “Only 12% of prescribing specialists are ‘very confident’ that biosimilars are as safe as the original biologic version of the drug. In addition, a mere 17% said they were ‘very likely’ to prescribe a biosimilar, while 70% admitted they were not sure if they would.”
Since then, this scenario for biosimilar drugs is changing though gradually, but encouragingly. I shall dwell on that below.
The major growth drivers:
The major growth drivers for biosimilars, especially, in the world’s top pharmaceutical markets are expected to be:
- Growing pressure to curtail healthcare expenditure
- Growing demand for biosimilar drugs due to their cost-effectiveness
- Rising incidences of various life-threatening diseases
- Increasing number of off-patent biologics
- Positive outcome in the ongoing clinical trials
- Rising demand for biosimilars in different therapeutic applications, such as, rheumatoid arthritis and blood disorders.
This in turn would probably usher in an unprecedented opportunity for the manufacturers of high quality biosimilar drugs, including in India.
Unfolding a huge emerging opportunity with biosimilars:
This unprecedented opportunity is expected to come mainly from the world’s three largest pharma market, namely the United States, Europe and Japan, due to very high prices of original biologic drugs, and simultaneously to contain rapidly escalating healthcare expenditure by the respective Governments.
Unlike in the past, when the doctors were apprehensive, and a bit skeptic too, on the use of new biosimilars, some new studies of 2016 indicate a rapid change in that trend. After the launch of the first biosimilar drug in the US, coupled with rapidly increasing incidences of various complex, life-threatening diseases, better knowledge of biosimilar drugs and their cost-effectiveness, doctors are now expressing much lesser concern, and exhibiting greater confidence in the use of biosimilars in their clinical practice.
Yet another, March 2016 study indicates, now only 19.5 percent of respondents feel little or no confidence in the use of biosimilar monoclonal antibodies compared to 61percent of respondents to a previous version of the survey undertaken in 2013 by the same market research group. The survey also shows that 44.4 percent of respondents consider that the original biologic and its biosimilar versions are interchangeable, as compared with only 6 percent in the 2013 survey.
As a result of this emerging trend, some global analysts of high credibility estimate that innovative biologic brands will lose around US$110 billion in sales to their biosimilar versions by 2025.
Another March, 2016 report of IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics states that lower-cost biosimilar versions of complex biologic, could save the US and Europe’s five top markets as much as US$112 billion by 2020,
These encouraging developments in the global biosimilar arena are expected to encourage the capable Indian biosimilar drug players to invest in this high-tech format of drug development, and reap a rich harvest as the high priced blockbuster biologic brands go off-patent.
Putting all these developments together, and considering the rapidly emerging scenario in this space, it now appears that challenges ahead for rapid acceptance of biosimilar drugs though are still many, but not insurmountable, at all.
The situation necessitates application of fresh and innovative marketing strategies to gain doctors’ confidence on biosimilar medicines, in total conformance with the regulatory requirements for the same, as they are, in the most important regulated markets of the world.
It goes without saying that success in the generation of enough prescriptions for biosimilar drugs is the fundamental requirement to benefit the patients, which, in turn, would lead to significant savings in health care cost, as estimated above, creating a win-win situation for all, in every way.
As more innovator companies start joining the biosimilar bandwagon, the physicians’ perception on these new varieties of medicines, hopefully, would also change, sooner.
Biocon’s grand announcement of its entry with a ‘made in India’ biosimilar drug in one of the word’s top three pharma markets, would probably be a great encouragement for all other Indian biosimilar drug manufacturers. It clearly showcases the capabilities of an Indian drug manufacturer to chart in an uncharted and a highly complex frontier of medicine.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.