Lilly eyes entry into biogenerics arena

NEW YORK, Dec 11 (Reuters) - Two days after Merck & Co MRK.N announced a major push into generic versions of biotechnology medicines, Eli Lilly and Co LLY.N on Thursday signaled similar aspirations "down the road."

Lilly, which recently completed a $6.5 billion purchase of biotechnology company ImClone Systems, told analysts and investors at its annual meeting in New York that biogenerics were on its radar.

“We’re very much considering it. It’s something we’re looking at. We’ll be opportunistic there,” Lilly Chief Executive John Lechleiter said.

Biotechnology medicines, based on living organisms such as proteins and antibodies, are far more complex and expensive to manufacture and tougher to duplicate than traditional chemical pills. As a result, generic versions will likely not be considered direct substitutes for brand name drugs and are often referred to as biosimilars or follow-on biologics.

The U.S. Congress has yet to approve a regulatory pathway for generic biologic medicines, but many industry observers believe such a law could be passed as soon as next year, following Europe’s lead, as pressure mounts to cut healthcare costs.

Merck said this week it expects to have at least five follow-on biologics in late-stage development by 2012.

Lilly was not quite ready to make such a specific pronouncement, but its biotechnology prowess should grow dramatically with the integration of ImClone.

Steven Paul, president of Lilly Research Laboratories, told Reuters that getting into biogenerics is “a very reasonable thing for Lilly to do, probably down the road.”

“It’s certainly something that Lilly could do particularly well because we could engineer proteins very well and improve their drug properties,” Paul said. (Editing by John Wallace)