AstraZeneca drives back Nexium knockoff, at least for now

Nexium has won a reprieve from looming competition--if only temporarily. A U.S. appeals court ordered Hanmi Pharmaceutical to hold off on selling its modified version of AstraZeneca's blockbuster stomach drug to give the court time to weigh patent-infringement claims.

The delay allows AstraZeneca ($AZN) to pursue the patent fight without fear that Hanmi's Esomezol drug will grab market share in the meantime. The U.K.-based drugmaker is already bracing itself for Nexium's patent loss next year, and it wants to sell as much of the little purple pill as it can before then. The drug brought in almost $4 billion last year.

And AstraZeneca needs all the sales it can get. With Seroquel already off patent, the company's revenues have been dwindling. Crestor, its blockbuster cholesterol drug, faces competition from generic versions of Pfizer's ($PFE) Lipitor, and it goes off patent in 2016. The company's pipeline hasn't delivered much to counteract that. So, pumping Nexium--and Crestor--for sales is essential.

Hanmi's Esomezol is an "incrementally modified" form of Nexium, essentially a new salt version of the drug's active ingredient, esomeprazole. AstraZeneca's brand is a magnesium salt, while Hanmi's, developed with partner Amneal Pharmaceutical, is a strontium salt.

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