Biologic Medicine: Ushers in a different ‘Mega Race’ for inorganic growth

During the last several years the success of biologics compared to conventional small-molecule drugs to meet the unmet needs of patients, is gradually but surely changing the area of focus of pharmaceutical R&D altogether, making the biotech companies interesting targets for M&A. Over a period of so many years, the small-molecule blockbuster drugs business model made pharmaceuticals a high-margin industry. However, it now appears that the low hanging fruits to make blockbuster drugs have mostly been plucked.

These low hanging fruits involved therapy areas like, anti-ulcerants, anti-lipids, anti-diabetics, cardiovascular, anti-psychotic etc. and their many variants, which were relatively easy R&D targets to manage chronic ailments. Hereafter, the chances of successfully developing drugs for cure of these chronic ailments, with value addition, would indeed be a very tough call.

Deploying expensive resources towards finding a cure for so called ‘chronic diseases’ may also not promise a strong commercial incentive, as the treatment for ulcer, lipid disorders, diabetics, hypertension etc. are currently continues lifelong for a patient and a cure will limit the treatment to a short to medium term period.

Greater promise in biologics:

On the other hand, the bottom-line impact of a successful R&D outcome with safer and effective drugs to treat intractable ailments like,various types of cancer and blood disorders, auto-immune and Central Nervous System (CNS) related diseases, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Myasthenia gravis, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s diseases etc., will be huge. It is believed that well targeted drugs of biologic origin could well be successful treatment for such intractable diseases.

The golden opportunity of meeting the unmet needs of the patients with effective biologics, especially in high-growth therapeutics, as mentioned above, has given the M&A activities in the pharma-biotech space an unprecedented thrust.

Biologic versus conventional drugs:

Biologics Conventional and NME drugs
Large molecules (>5000 molecular weight) Small molecules (~500 molecular weight)
Bio-technologically produced or isolated from living sources Chemically synthesized
Complex structure/mixtures (tertiary structure, glycosylated) Simple well-defined structure
High target specificity Less target specificity
Generally parenteral administration (e.g., intravenous) Oral administration possible (pills)

(Source: MoneyTreeTM Report. PWC, 2009)

According to IMS, Biologics contribute around 17% of global pharmaceutical sales and generated a revenue of US$120 billion MAT March 2009. As we see today, gradually more and more global pharmaceutical companies, who used to spend around 15% to 20% of their annual sales in R&D, are channelizing a large part of the same to effectively compete in a fast evolving market of biologics through mainly M&A route. This is also driven by their strategic intent to make good the loss in income from the blockbuster drugs going off patent and at the same time fast dwindling R&D pipeline.

A shift from small molecule based blockbuster model to a biologics-based blockbuster one:

Frost & Sullivan forecasts a shift from small molecules-based blockbuster model to a biologics-based blockbuster one for the global pharmaceutical majors, just as biologics like Enbrel ,Remicade, Avastin, Rituxan and Humira, as mentioned below, have already proved to be money spinners.

The top 10 global brands in 2009:

Rank Product Chemical/Biologic Global Sales US$ Mn
1 Lipitior Chemical 12,511
2 Plavix Chemical 9,492
3. Seretide/Advair Chemical 7,791
4. Enbrel Biologic 6,295
5. Diovan Chemical 6,013
6. Remicade Biologic 5,924
7. Avastin Biologic 5,744
8. Rituxan Biologic 5,620
9. Humira Biologic 5,559
10. Seroquel Chemical 5,121

(Source: EvaluatePharma)

Faster growth of biologics attracting attention of large pharma players:

Currently, faster growth of biologics as compared to conventional new chemical entities is driven by novel technologies and highly targeted approach, the final outcome of which is being more widely accepted by both physicians and patients. The large global pharmaceutical companies are realizing it pretty fast. The type and quality of their recent acquisitions, vindicate this point.

Mega race for biologics and vaccines:

Driven by the above factor, in 2009 Pfizer acquired Wyeth for US $68 billion, Roche acquired Genentech for US $ 47 billion and Merck acquired Schering-Plough for US $ 41 billion. Only the above three M&A are valued more than US $ 150 billion and that too at a time of global financial meltdown.

Acquisition of Wyeth enabled Pfizer to expand its product-mix with vaccines, animal health and consumer products businesses and at the same time leveraging from Wyeth’s biologics capability.

Similarly, Merck got tempted to acquire Schering-Plough mainly because of latter’s rich R&D pipeline with biologics.

Roche, which was basically a pharmaceutical company, post-acquisition of Genentech, became a major bio-pharmaceutical company with a great promise to deliver in the years ahead.

Other M&As, which would signify a shift toward the growing space for biologics are the acquisition of MedImmune by AstraZeneca and Insmed by Merck and the recent bid of Sanofi-Aventis for Genzyme.

Faster growth of biologics:

As mentioned above, despite patent cliff, biologics continue to contribute better than small molecules to overall growth of the R&D based global pharmaceutical industry.  Most of these biologics are sourced either through acquisition or  collaborative arrangements.

Currently cash strapped biotech companies with molecules ready for human clinical trials or with target molecules in the well sought after growth areas like, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, cell or gene therapies, therapeutic protein hormones, cytokines and tissue growth factors, etc. are becoming attractive acquisition targets, mainly by large pure pharmaceutical companies with deep pockets.

Another M&A model:

Besides mega race for mega acquisitions, on the other hand, relatively smaller pharmaceutical players have started acquiring venture-backed biotech companies to enrich their product pipelines with early-stage drugs at a much lesser cost. For example, with the acquisition of Calistoga for US $ 600 million and venture-backed Arresto Biosciences and CGI Pharmaceuticals, Gilead known for its HIV drugs, expanded into blood cancer, solid tumor and inflammatory diseases. In 2009 the same Gilead acquired CV Therapeutics for US $1.4billion to build a portfolio for cardiovascular drugs.

Smaller biotech companies, because of their current size do not get engaged in  very large deals, unlike the top pharma players, but make quick, decisive and usually successful deals.

Another commercial advantage for biologics – lesser generic competition :

After patent expiry of a New Chemical Entity (NCE), innovators’ brands become extremely vulnerable to cut throat generic competition with as much as 90% price erosion, as these small molecules are relatively easy to replicate by many generic manufacturers and the process of getting their regulatory approval is not as stringent as biosimilar drugs in most of the markets of the world.

On the other hand biologics, which involve difficult, complex and expensive biological processes for development together with stringent regulatory requirements for getting marketing approval of biosimilar drugs especially in the developed markets of the world like, EU and USA, offer some significant brand protection from generic competition for quite some time, even after patent expiry.

It is for this reason, brands like the following ones are expected to go strong for some more time to come, without any significant competition from biosimilar drugs:

Brand Company Launch date
Rituxan Roche/Biogen idec 1997
Herceptin Roche 1998
Remicade Centocor/J&J 1998
Enbrel Amgen/Pfizer 1998

Change of appetite:

In my view, the voracious appetite of large pharmaceutical companies for inorganic growth through mega M&As, will ultimately subside for various compelling reasons.  Instead, smaller biotech companies, especially with products in Phase I or II of clinical trials without further resource to take them to subsequent stages of development, will be prime targets for acquisition by the pharma majors at an attractive valuation.


Although the large pharma majors are experimenting with pure biotech companies in terms of acquisitions and alliances, it will be interesting to see the long term ‘DNA Compatibility’ between these companies’ business models, organization and work/employee culture and market outlook to improve their overall global business performance, significantly. Only future will tell us whether or not just restructuring of the R&D set up of companies like, Pfizer, Merck, Roche and perhaps Sanofi-aventis at a later date, helps synergizing the overall R&D productivity of the merged companies.

In this context, Frost & Sullivan had commented: “Widely differing cultures at Roche and Genentech could make retaining top scientists a huge challenge. Roche is Swiss and a stickler for precision and time, while Genentech has a more ‘Californian attitude’ and is laid back and efficient in its work”.

Though the long-term overall financial impact of the ‘mega race for mega deals’, as mentioned above, is less clear to me, acquisition of biotech companies, especially well thought through smaller ones, seems to be a pretty smart move towards inorganic growth by the global innovator companies.

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.