Novartis wants Tasigna to cannibalize Gleevec to save its sales

Gleevec is a revolutionary drug that has helped transform some blood cancers into chronic illnesses rather than death sentences. Around since 2001, new uses have been found for the drug every few years and Gleevec sales will actually grow this year, from $4.1 billion last year. So why would Novartis ($NVS) want to persuade patients to quit taking Gleevec?

Because it is going off patent in 2015, already has more competition and because the company wants patients to start using its replacement therapy, Tasigna, to keep them within its drug-selling fold. It is conducting discontinuation trials in hopes of proving the newer drug has even more healing heft and so patients should take it instead.

Andrew Weiss, an analyst with Bank Vontobel in Zurich, explains the plan to Bloomberg. "Novartis' strategy is to portray Tasigna as the best treatment on the market, so good that there will be talk about it being a cure."

The news service explains that Novartis currently dominates the $6 billion market for blood cancer drugs, with Gleevec and Tasigna. Sprycel from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) had about $803 million in sales last year. But Pfizer ($PFE) entered the market in September with Bosulif, and Ariad Pharmaceuticals ($ARIA) expects to have a contender approved early next year.

While the Gleevec patent is good until 2015, Novartis is thinking ahead. Gleevec and Tasigna currently cost a couple of thousand dollars a month for treatment but a generic of Gleevec could cost as little as $40 or $50 a month, Bloomberg says. The company is also fighting a pitched battle in India, which wants to allow early generic versions of the drug there.

The company has not been shy about admitting its plan. In a conference in September, Bloomberg says Herve Hoppenot, who oversees cancer drugs at Novartis, said the company wants Tasigna to "cannibalize" Gleevec until Gleevec is hit by generics. "It's going to create a fairly large amount of the Gleevec business that will be indirectly protected because it was switched already to Tasigna," he said.

- read the Bloomberg story

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