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* Bristol-Myers eyes deals ahead of patent expirations
* R&D chiefs say focus should be on patient, not cost cuts
* Pfizer R&D chief promises speedy Wyeth integration
By Bill Berkrot
NEW YORK, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Bristol-Myers Squibb Co's (BMY.N) $2.4 billion acquisition of biotechnology company Medarex has not quenched its thirst for takeovers as it faces the 2011 patent expiration on Plavix, its biggest-selling drug, the company's head of research and development said.
"We will continue to do deals," Elliot Sigal said.
"Like everyone else, we have significant drugs coming off patent. We've been focused on that for several years," he said during a panel discussion at this week's Windhover Pharmaceutical Strategic Alliances conference in New York.
"There's a lot of incentive to bring things in as an innovation strategy to manage the inevitable attrition."
In an effort to build up its portfolio of drugs in late-stage development, Sigal said Bristol-Myers expected about a third to come from external sources.
Peter Mueller, research chief of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc(VRTX.O), a biotech company with promising drugs in development but none yet on the market, warned of "disaster" as companies face the so-called patent cliff that will see many of the world's top-selling medicines face generic competition.
"In the next couple of years pharma is under quite a bit of pressure because we are losing altogether about $100 billion (in sales) over the next three years," said Mueller, who suggested that the industry's focus should be on patients and disease rather than cost cutting and acquisitions.
While Bristol-Myers has done quite a bit of cost cutting, Sigal agreed.
"As an industry I think we should acknowledge that we've just about lost our way," he said.
"We have to have the patient needs up front, and if you're trying to do something right by the patient the business will follow," Sigal said.
No one in the industry is facing a more significant patent expiration issue than Pfizer Inc (PFE.N), whose $11 billion a year cash cow Lipitor, for treatment of cholesterol, loses patent protection in late 2011.
Branded drugs quickly lose 80 percent or more of their revenue once generic competition floods the market.
Pfizer took a major step toward mitigating some of the Lipitor damage with its $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth, due to close later his year.
Martin MacKay, who sits atop the industry's fattest research and development budget -- one he will soon share with Wyeth research chief Mikael Dolsten -- promised a swift integration of the two huge operations.
"Between 30 to 60 days after close we will make significant announcements about what areas we're working in, who's going to run those areas. That's way quicker than anything we've done in the past," MacKay said, referring to previous Pfizer mega acquisitions of Warner-Lambert and Pharmacia.
MacKay said there could be no excuse if he and Dolsten "can't provide a portfolio that sustains the company" with an annual R&D budget of about $8 billion, a sum he called "magnificent."
"With that kind of funding, we should be able to do a great job," he said.
Pfizer currently has 23 Phase III clinical studies ongoing, including one for the blood clot preventer apixaban being developed in partnership with Bristol-Myers, MacKay said.
Phase III is typically the final stage of human testing before a new drug is submitted to health regulators for an approval decision.
The 23 involve a mix of drugs discovered internally and those the company has licensed from outside sources, MacKay said.
Despite Pfizer's dismal recent track record for bringing internally developed medicines to market, MacKay said the notion that Pfizer suffered from a not-invented-here syndrome was "complete nonsense."
But he did say he was always on the quest for new medicines wherever they may be. "We will look down the back of a sofa for a good medicine," he joked, adding, "and I have sometimes tried that in my darker moments." (Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Ted Kerr)