Pharma Strategy Blog

Commentary on Pharma & Biotech Oncology / Hematology New Product Development

At last weeks investor meeting held by Roche in downtown Wall Street, the Board reviewed the pipeline opportunities in a number of areas.  Earlier this week I wrote about the non-oncology pipeline and today will form an overview of the cancer drugs in development.

One of the things that Roche is renowned for is life cycle management.  They do this better than many in the industry in my opinion and it makes an enormous difference not only to continuity, but also long term revenues and performance. Too many companies take a short term view and do not think ahead to the future. This is a big mistake. Perhaps they get bogged down in classic silos or management do not see it as a priority, but it does make a difference. 


Well, for starters, think about the basics of marketing. It is much easier to sell new products to existing customers than it is to sell existing products to new customers and even harder to sell new products to completely new customers.  

Thus life cycle management is a smart strategy and done well, enhances the experience for everyone involved whether employees or investors.  I only wish more companies paid closer attention to this important aspect of Pharma marketing.

The other thing I like about Roche's approach to R&D is rigorous and strong proof of concept studies (usually in phase II). Between Roche and Genentech, they both do this particularly well in oncology, it seems to be their signature. This partly explains why they mostly end up with a continuous wall of data across several products including trastuzumab (Herceptin), rituximab (Rituxan) and bevacizumab (Avastin). Of course, negative trials do occur but overall, they seem to have more positive trials than not. This partly explains why they have fewer phase III flops than say, Pfizer, because they spend the time in phase II working things out rather than rushing aggressively ahead on the basis of early evidence.

So what did we learn from the pipeline presentations last week?

There are late stage oncology products in development that look promising.

One example is trastuzumab-DM1, which is basically modified Herceptin with a potent cell killing agent, DM1, bolted on. The goal is to improve the action of Herceptin in metastatic breast cancer, and at the same time invetigate whether the xenograft data in a variety of cancers (breast, ovarian, lymphoma and prostate) with an armed antibody is an effective strategy in people. Recent phase II data from the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in heavily treated women with metastatic breast cancer look encouraging. Phase III trials have already begun and if all goes well, filing is currently anticipated by 2012.

Also potentially strengthening the breast cancer franchise is pertuzumab, a monoclonal antibody that targets HER2. Early phase I trials in several cancer types produced so-so results, but more recent phase II data in breast (combined with Herceptin) and ovarian cancer (in combination with gemcitabine) published this month in JCO look interesting.

Perhaps the most exciting compound though, is PLX4032/RG7204, a BRAF inhibitor being evaluated in malignant melanoma. Currently available data suggests survival is improved by 6 months so the big question is what causes resistance to develop and how this can be overcome. Data on this compound is expected at ASCO, where many are keen to see how it stacks up with ipilimumab (BMS).

In hematologic malignancies, GA101 or galiximab is being evaluated in non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma (NHL) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). It appears to target a different part of the CD20 isotope than rituximab and this may increase it's efficacy. Phase III trials began in 4Q09 thus it will be a little while before we see some results. There is clearly an unmet medical need in the 3rd line refractory disease for more tolerable agents and rituximab is very much the bedrock of treatment for both across multiple lines of therapy either alone or in combination with chemotherapy. A similar agent will likely have good take up with the right approach.

Genentech are investigating various new and improved approaches to angiogenesis, but these are in much earlier development and the bar is very high with bevacizumab (Avastin), even for the company who manufacture it. The list of anti-angiogenesis compounds that didn't make it to market is very long indeed.

I've left the best to last, as hedgehog (Hh) signalling is one of my favourite pathways – it always reminds me of the cheerful cartoon character, Sonic the Hedgehog. RG3616, licensed from Curis, is currently in phase II trials for advanced basal cell carcinoma and trials are also underway for medulloblastoma. If interested, you can find out more about the pathway and the science here.

Overall, the oncology pipeline has a nice mix of follow on compounds to strengthen life cycle management with a raft of monoclonal antibodies with different targets in new cancer types.  Such a strategy should reduce risk and drive the future bottom line if the promise delivers in phase III trials.

Baselga, J., Gelmon, K., Verma, S., Wardley, A., Conte, P., Miles, D., Bianchi, G., Cortes, J., McNally, V., Ross, G., Fumoleau, P., & Gianni, L. (2010). Phase II Trial of Pertuzumab and Trastuzumab in Patients With Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2-Positive Metastatic Breast Cancer That Progressed During Prior Trastuzumab Therapy Journal of Clinical Oncology, 28 (7), 1138-1144 DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2009.24.2024

Makhija, S., Amler, L., Glenn, D., Ueland, F., Gold, M., Dizon, D., Paton, V., Lin, C., Januario, T., Ng, K., Strauss, A., Kelsey, S., Sliwkowski, M., & Matulonis, U. (2009). Clinical Activity of Gemcitabine Plus Pertuzumab in Platinum-Resistant Ovarian Cancer, Fallopian Tube Cancer, or Primary Peritoneal Cancer Journal of Clinical Oncology, 28 (7), 1215-1223 DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2009.22.3354

5 Responses to “An overview of Roche's oncology pipeline”

  1. The Big Red Biotech Blog

    An overview of Roche’s oncology pipeline

    This is a very thoughtful analysis of Roche’s oncology pipeline and their portfolio management strategy. Roche looks to be very well positioned both with product extensions in existing markets and with new products for new indications. Roche CEO Severi…

  2. Charles

    Really interesting article, thanks. Just wondered about the 6 months improvement in survival for PLX4032. I’ve seen Ph I data suggesting an improvement in PFS of around 8 months but I’ve never seen OS data. Where were these survival data presented?

  3. MaverickNY

    Hi Charles, hmmm good question. I’m pretty sure I recall Dr Flaherty saying in the recent NYT series that it was six months, but will check out the data and provide a link either way. If it was 8 months then that would be even better!
    More data is likely to be presented at the melanoma meeting near the end of this year.

  4. sgcox

    PLX4032 should make very interesting story. It was used in two recent Nature papers that showed that RAF inhibitors work only against cancer with mutaded RAF but _activate_, not inhibit wild-type RAF. If approved it will be a true milestone in developing personilized targeted therapy.

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