* Humira growth signals importance of biotech medicines
* Lipitor, Plavix patent expiries upturn rankings in 2012
* Q1 results will show how Big Pharma is coping
* Roche kicks off earnings season April 12
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, April 11 Abbott Laboratories'
$9-billion arthritis drug Humira is set to take the crown as the
world's top-selling medicine this year, highlighting the
dominance of costly biotechnology products as revenues from
old-style pills decline.
Neither of last year's biggest sellers - Pfizer's
cholesterol fighter Lipitor or blood thinner Plavix from Sanofi
and Bristol-Myers Squibb - will even make it
into the top 10 in 2012, according to consensus forecasts
compiled by Thomson Reuters Pharma.
The dramatic shift in the sales landscape, triggered by a
record wave of patent expiries, will be centre-stage during the
forthcoming quarterly results season as investors weigh up how
leading pharmaceutical companies are adapting.
"They've all seen this coming but their ability to manoeuvre
is limited," said Simon Friend, global pharmaceutical leader at
"It's a tale of two worlds ... there is certainly a rush to
streamline costs and step up looking for new products."
Roche, the first Big Pharma to report sales figures
on April 12, is relatively well-placed in the new era, given its
leading position in biotech and cancer drugs, which it hopes to
consolidate by buying gene sequencing firm Illumina.
Roche has three anti-cancer drugs in the global top 10 with
Rituxan, Avastin and Herceptin. Others are less fortunate.
Pfizer is already feeling the loss of Lipitor, after the
U.S. patent ran out in November, while for Sanofi and Bristol
the first three months of 2012 were the last full quarter of
U.S. Plavix sales before cheap generics hit.
Bottom of the pack is AstraZeneca, trading on just 7
times this year's expected earnings. It has already warned that
earnings will fall by more than 10 percent in 2012 as its
antipsychotic Seroquel and other drugs face generic competition.
ON A ROLL
Abbott's Humira, by contrast, is on a roll.
Analysts expect the U.S. firm to report first-quarter
revenue from the injectable medicine up 11 percent from a year
ago and worldwide sales, including those booked by Japan's Eisai
, are forecast to reach $9.3 billion this year.
Although best known as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis,
Humira is also used for a range of other inflammatory diseases.
On Wednesday, it was approved in Europe for a seventh indication
against ulcerative colitis.
The medicine is expected to retain its market-leading
position through 2016, by which time it will rack up sales of
$11.75 billion - still short of the $13 billion achieved by
Lipitor at its peak.
Two other biologic rheumatoid arthritis drugs - Johnson &
Johnson and Merck & Co's Remicade and Amgen
and Pfizer's Enbrel - are set to take second and third
place behind Humira this year, but they are growing more slowly.
Humira will be the key asset when Abbott spins off its
pharma business from the wider diversified healthcare company
later this year. Competition, however, is looming.
A U.S. advisory panel will meet on May 9 to consider whether
to approve a novel arthritis pill from Pfizer called tofacitnib,
challenging so-called anti-TNF drugs like Humira.
Mark Schoenebaum, an analyst at ISI Group, expects a vote
for approval but believes tofacitnib may be restricted to
patients for whom anti-TNFs do not work, given the outstanding
questions about its safety record in clinical trials.
With a growing emphasis on drugs to treat conditions like
cancer and inflammatory conditions, which are typically
prescribed by specialists for relatively limited numbers of
patients, some analysts doubt if any single drug will ever match
Lipitor's sales peak.
The one area where sales above $13 billion a year seem
plausible is Alzheimer's disease - but expectations for an
effective treatment remain low, despite ongoing late-stage
clinical trials with experimental products from Eli Lilly
and Pfizer and J&J.