Pharma’s Oncology Focus: Some Key Drivers With Pros And Cons For Patients

Just in the first ten days of the brand-new year – 2019, three important oncology focused acquisitions were announced by three top global pharma companies.

On January 03, 2019, Bristol-Myers Squibb announced that it will acquire Celgene for a hefty sum of USD 74 billion to be a leading Biopharma player, focusing on high-value innovative medicines. As reported by BioSpace on January 04, 2019, the BMS CEO said, the combined might of the two pipelines will create “the number one oncology franchise” for both solid and hematologic tumors.

Just four days thereafter, on January 7, 2019, at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Eli Lilly announced that it will acquire targeted cancer drug maker Loxo Oncology for USD 8 billion. This deal gives the company TRK inhibitor Vitrakvi – the first drug approved by the FDA to target tumors based on genetic abnormality, rather than the location of the cancer.

On June 08 2019, at the same J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley, reportedly said that GSK has agreed to acquire already approved PARP inhibitor Zejula as well as a range of pipeline assets valued USD 5 billion.It’s noteworthy that Walmsley announced the company’s new focus on oncology just the last year and has now almost doubled its immuno-oncology pipeline.

Even in the last year – 2018, a significant number of oncology focused Merger and Acquisitions (M&A) took place. The acquisition values are also interesting – ranging from a few-hundred million to billions of USD. In this article, I shall examine what could be the main drivers of this emerging trend with its pros and cons from the patients’ perspective, in general. As a brief backdrop, let me start with a few examples of such M&As in 2018.

Some oncology focused M&As in 2018:

Following are examples of some oncology focused acquisitions that took place in 2018:

  • In January 2018, Celgene Corporation, which has now been acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb, announced theacquisition of Juno Therapeutics for about USD 9 billion. This deal came shortly after Celgene’s deal for Impact Biomedicines valuing USD 1.1 billion.
  • In late-January 2018, the biggest deals this year were by Sanofi. It acquired Waltham, Massachusetts-based Bioverativ for about USD 11.6 billion. Bioverativ was a spinoff by Biogen. About a week later, Sanofi bought Ghent, Belgium-based Ablynx for USD 4.8 billion.
  • In April 2018, Roche completed its acquisition of Flatiron Health, an oncology-specific digital health company for about USD 1.9 billion.
  • In the same month of April 2018, Shire sold its oncology business to France’s Servier for USD 2.4 billion.
  • In May 2018,  Janssen Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnsons Janssen Pharmaceuticals, announced that it was buying Rockville, Maryland-based BeneVir Biopharma, in a deal of more than USD 1 billion.

Thus, the question that follows: what could be the primary drivers of this trend?

The primary drivers:

In my view, the primary drivers for focus on the oncology segment by pharma and biotech companies is a combination of the following factors:

  • Leading cause of death: The incidence of cancer is fast increasing across the world, making it the leading cause of death, says 2018 report of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
  • High incidence: Cancer burden rose to 18.1 million new cases, with 9.6 million cancer deaths in 2018. IARC report further highlighted, one in 5 men and one in 6 women worldwide develop cancer during their lifetime, and one in 8 men and one in 11 women die from the disease.
  • The need for new treatment approaches is increasing: Various types of cancers are getting more and more complex.Genetic and epigenetic alterations in tumor cell populations are generating heritable variation, requiring new drugs along with novel treatment approaches.
  • High price: According to Journal of Oncology Practice, the average cancer drug price for approximately 1 year of therapy or a total treatment duration was less than USD 10,000 before 2000. This had increased to USD 30,000 to USD 50,000 by 2005. In 2012, twelve of thirteen new drugs approved for cancer indications were priced above USD 100,000 per year of therapy. For example, Keytruda (Merck) was launched in the US in 2014 at a price of reportedly USD 12,500 for each patient monthly or USD 150,000 annually. The drug is expected to be 30 percent cheaper in India than the global prices.
  • Longer product exclusivity period: As is often reported, many of the newer high-priced cancer drugs are for very specific types of cancer, with virtually no real competition. Consequently, they generally enjoy the benefits of a longer price exclusivity period, even after patent expiry. Humira of AbbVie is one such example.

The strategy is paying rich dividend to pharma players:

That this strategy continues paying rich dividend to concerned pharma players, gets reflected on the therapy group-wise performance of the global drug industry. Today, the global cancer therapeutics segment assumed mind-boggling size in value term. It was estimated at USD 121 billion in 2017 and projected to reach USD 172.6 billion by 2022. The top 10 oncology drugs accounted for revenue of USD 54.48 billion in 2017. Celgene, which has just been acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb, dominates the oncology market, with its best-selling product – Revlimid.

Successive launches of a large number of high-priced novel cancer drugs, has pushed the oncology segment in the top slot in therapy ranking. It is expected to remain this way, at least for some time, as June 2018 report of Evaluate Pharma forecasts that the oncology therapy area will maintain the top ranking in the 2017-2024 period.

IQVIA report on ‘Global Oncology Trends 2018’ ofMay 24, 2018 also reconfirms that the number of approved cancer therapies continues to rise, with 63 cancer drugs launching within the past five years.’ Illustrating the point further, the report highlights that global spending on cancer medicines keeps rising with therapeutic and supportive care use at USD133 billion globally in 2017, up from USD 96 billion in 2013.

Pros and Cons of this trend for patients:

Interestingly, this trend has both pros and cons for patients, almost in equal measure. Some of the important pros are, as follows:

  • Advancement of cancer treatments at an accelerated pace in recent years, is offering notable improvements in clinical benefit to patients, comments the above IQVIA report.
  • Consequently, cancer incidence and mortality have been declining with an increase in the survival rate, especially in the developed countries, such as the United States, in recent times.
  • Nevertheless, decreased incidence and improved survival rate have also been attributed to both – reductions in smoking, as well as advances in early detection and treatments.

Alongside, examples of some of major cons are also bothering many patients, such as:

  • The real benefits of newer and novel high-priced cancer drugs have not been felt by most people in the developing world, which constitutes the majority of the global population.
  • The GLOBOCAN 2018 database, accessible online as part of the IARC Global Cancer Observatory, also highlights that countries with lower Human Development Index (HDI) have a higher frequency of certain cancer types associated with poorer survival. This is mainly because access to timely diagnosis and effective treatment is less common.
  • Although, the new generation of treatment is transforming the field of cancer, yielding more cures and long-term remissions than ever before, the healthcare systems worldwide continue to struggle to deliver the benefits of these drugs to deserving patients.
  • As the above IQVIA report says, the list prices of new cancer drugs at launch have risen steadily over the past decade, and the median annual cost of a new cancer drug launched in 2017 exceeded USD 150,000, compared to USD 79,000 for the new cancer drugs launched in 2013.
  • If the affordability of drugs is not addressed soon, many people with cancer might not be able to reap the rewards of cutting-edge therapies.This concern was also expressed by Nature in an article titled, ‘Bringing down the cost of cancer treatment,’ published on March 07, 2018.

Thus,access to cancer treatment, mostly with modern cancer drugs, is becoming a major challenge in all countries, but much more acute in the developing nations. A special article titled, ‘Facing the Global Challenges of Access to Cancer Medication,’ published in the Journal of Global Oncology on March 28, 2018, also broached the question of affordability of modern anticancer medication and commented, “the financial challenge presented by the rising cost of care will create a barrier to its delivery.”

Conclusion:

On the above perspective, the emerging trend of large pharma and biotech companies’ focus on novel oncology drugs is an interesting one. The key drivers fueling this ascending trend are also understandable. However, a deep-stick analysis of pros and cons of its impact on patients indicate, it has helped patients in the developed world, significantly more than those in the developing world, with affordability being the primary issue.

The article titled, ‘Bringing down the cost of cancer treatment,’ published in Nature on March 07, 2018, also reconfirms the current situation eloquently. It asserted, there isn’t an iota of doubt that new generations of cancer drugs are transforming the field of cancer treatment, yielding long-term remissions and even cure – more than ever before. Nevertheless, while medicine’s ability to tackle tumors increases by manifold, patients and healthcare systems worldwide are struggling to deliver their benefits to most cancer patients.

To address this situation, some drug players did try out ‘tiered pricing’, while a few others announced – ‘patient assistance programs’. Unfortunately, none of these measures seem to have benefitted majority of deserving patients, materially. Thus, echoing the above article from Nature, I would emphasize, if the affordability issue of new cancer drugs is not effectively addressed soon, collectively by all stakeholders, a vast majority of cancer patient won’t be able to reap expected rewards from such cutting-edge therapies.

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.

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