Top 15 Drug Launch Superstars

A year ago, FiercePharma published a list of drugs that missed when stepping on the up escalator. A heel got caught, or a sleeve. Bystanders hit the emergency stop button. For whatever reason, escalate they did not. We called it "Top 10 Drug Launch Disasters." It's still one of our most popular special reports.

This year, we wanted to take a more positive approach. So, herewith we bring you our Top 15 Drug Launch Superstars. Some of them will be obvious to anyone who follows the pharma business. They certainly were obvious to us. But choosing the rest was a challenge--one we weren't exactly expecting, based on previous experience. Turns out, as tough as it may be to identify disasters before they happen, it's not so difficult after the fact. To go back to the escalator analogy, it's like trying to pick Will Ferrell out of an ascending crowd when he's wearing an elf costume and doing the splits.

The success stories, on the other hand, are all well dressed, well groomed, purposeful individuals. They might be walking up the moving steps to get to the top faster. They might be walking, talking and delivering an iPad presentation at the same time, without bumping into anyone along the way. Not nearly conspicuous enough.

So, we had to think about the nature of a successful drug launch, and we realized that there are really several types. There's the thoroughbred that gallops out fast and doesn't miss a step--Regeneron ($REGN) and Bayer's Eylea, for instance. These are the easiest to identify, of course. There's the technological breakthrough practically destined to sell well--like Roche's ($RHHBY) new Genentech-developed cancer drug Kadcyla, Vertex Pharmaceuticals' ($VRTX) cystic fibrosis treatment Kalydeco or Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) melanoma treatment Yervoy. There's the high-powered drug that's easier to take than its competitors, whether that's the first oral multiple sclerosis drug like Novartis' ($NVS) Gilenya, or a next-gen prostate cancer pill like Zytiga or Xtandi, or a four-in-one HIV fighter like Gilead's ($GILD) Stribild. And then there are the solid, steady builders. They're high-performing products that start out strong and keep on growing, by dint of new indications or simple market-share growth or both. Consider Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) diabetes drug Victoza, J&J's ($JNJ) psoriasis drug Stelara or Novartis' cancer treatment Afinitor.

And then there are the could-have-beens, the drugs that might be contenders--and might be on this list--if new rivals hadn't been nipping at their heels. Exhibits A and B in this category: Vertex's Incivek and Merck's ($MRK) Victrelis, the hepatitis C drugs greeted with such fanfare back in 2011. Now, thanks to a coming generation of all-oral, interferon-free cocktails, physicians have put their patients in a holding pattern, and Incivek and Victrelis are lagging.

Of course, with 15 slots, we had to leave out some strong new drugs. Pfizer's ($PFE) targeted lung cancer treatment Xalkori marked a genuine breakthrough, and considering the small size of its very targeted market, it has sold quite well. Roche's Zelboraf, another targeted cancer drug, quickly followed Yervoy to market, and though it's delivering hundreds of millions for the company, it's still lagging behind the BMS treatment--and a study combining the two against the disease was summarily halted earlier this year. Xeljanz, which many analysts think will eventually be a big drug for Pfizer, is still quite new, and it isn't one of the fast-out-of-the-gate thoroughbreds. We left out Roche's new breast cancer drug Perjeta in favor of Kadcyla because of the latter's exciting armed-antibody technology. And Boehringer Ingelheim's anticoagulant Pradaxa could easily have made the list a few months ago before its sales growth slowed on safety worries and a second competitor appeared on the scene.

Now, we'll move on to the 15 that made the cut. They're ranked not by sales figures or percentage growth, but by purely subjective judgment. And a note about the numbers: Sales figures came from company releases, annual reports, and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. Unless otherwise noted, analyst estimates for 2018 sales came from EvaluatePharma.

You'll probably have your own opinions about our choices. Did we leave off a more worthy drug? Should our first pick be in 10th place? Let us know what you think, either directly or via our LinkedIn discussion group. There's always next year's list, after all. -- Tracy Staton (email | Twitter)

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Top 15 Drug Launch Superstars