NEW YORK (Reuters) - New cancer drugs are a top priority for most pharmaceutical companies these days, but the sector’s sales trajectory has flattened as key medicines lose patent protection and new breakthrough products prove scarce.
U.S. sales of oncology drugs increased just 3.5 percent in the first nine months of this year, according to pharmaceutical market information company IMS Health.
The sector saw sales growth of 23 percent in 2006, after Roche Holding AG’s Avastin was launched. It grew by 14 percent in 2007 and 9 percent in both 2008 and 2009.
“This is an unprecedented slowdown,” IMS senior vice president Murray Aitken said at the Reuters Health Summit. “Growth is largely being driven by pricing increases,” as well as the entrance of lower-cost generic drugs.
Scientific advances in cancer treatment have encouraged many large drug companies to step up their investment in oncology research in recent years, resulting in rapidly expanding pipelines of targeted therapies.
Most older cancer drugs are chemotherapy agents, designed to kill fast-growing cancer cells. Such cytotoxic drugs also kill healthy cells that multiply rapidly, resulting in serious side effects such as sickness, hair loss and risk of infection.
Sanofi-Aventis SA’s chemotherapy drug Eloxatin, or oxaliplatin, lost its patent protection this year.
By contrast, modern drugs are much more precise — and higher-priced — weapons because they target specific molecular switches involved in tumor growth, giving rise to fewer side effects.
Avastin, for instance, is designed to block off the blood supply tumors need to thrive and grow.
Given the limited treatment options for many cancers, oncology “is a key part of many companies’ strategy for future growth,” Aitken said. “There is a lot in the pipeline that looks very exciting.”
But many recent targeted drugs are variations of existing products which end up jostling for a share of the current market, rather than offering new treatment options for patients.
The growth rate for global sales of biologic drugs — meaning medicines made from biological components — is expected to fall below 10 percent for the first time this year to $130 billion, according to IMS.
Ultimately, the oncology market will be driven by innovation.
“If we had another Avastin or Herceptin (a cancer drug also sold by Roche), it would quickly change direction,” Aitken said.
Reporting by Deena Beasley, editing by Matthew Lewis