Therapeutic vaccines said to hold big promise

NEW YORK Wed Jul 30, 2008 5:00pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The new chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline Plc said on Wednesday therapeutic vaccines used to treat cancer and other diseases could become a major product line for the world's second-largest drugmaker.

Andrew Witty said therapeutic vaccines, which prod the immune system to attack specific proteins linked to diseases, are one of the company's most promising areas of research.

"If it fulfills its promise, it will probably be a whole new business," Witty said, referring to such vaccines as "hybrids" between drugs and vaccines. Vaccines traditionally have been used to prevent illness rather than fight it.

Glaxo is conducting late-stage trials of a therapeutic vaccine meant for cancer patients after their tumors have been surgically removed, Witty said. The therapeutic vaccine is meant to destroy any surviving cancer cells and prevent recurrence of the disease.

Called MAGE-A3, the vaccine is being tested against lung cancer and melanoma. It targets MAGE-3, a protein found in a number of cancers but not in normal cells.

It is Glaxo's leading product among a class of vaccines called Antigen-Specific Cancer Immunotherapeutics (ACSIs), designed to train the immune system to recognize and eliminate cancer cells in a highly specific manner.

Witty spoke to journalists at a meeting in New York. Last week he unveiled plans to make the London-based company a broader business with lower costs.

Although Witty aims to expand Glaxo's line of vaccines, medicines and consumer products, he said on Wednesday that he has little interest in medical devices, which are a major product line for diversified drugmakers such as Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Laboratories Inc.

"You should not expect us to say we'll go buy products on a far-away island. Devices seem like that to us," Witty said. "I look at other businesses that we're not involved in, like med tech, and ask do we know how to buy such businesses. I'm not sure we can answer 'yes.'"

But he said Glaxo might develop medical devices if they were a necessary component of drug therapy.

Last week, Witty said another linchpin of future earnings growth for Glaxo would be an aggressive program to sell generic drugs in emerging markets, meaning those outside the United States and Europe. Glaxo also aims to boost its line of nonprescription consumer health-care products.

Although generic drugs and consumer products may have lower profit margins than Glaxo's mainstay of branded prescription drugs, Witty said they could still increase company profits.

"Percentages don't pay the rent, dollars pay the rent," he said, predicting that a higher volume of low-margin products would drive the "overall quantum of profits."

(Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Toni Reinhold)

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