As GSK, Aurinia heat up the lupus nephritis category, analyst gauges doctors' first impressions

boxing gloves
GlaxoSmithKline and Aurinia are going toe-to-toe as the first-to-market competing brands in lupus nephritis, with possibly more competitors to come. (Getty Images)

The lupus nephritis category is sporting a first-ever brand battle—two new-to-category drugs with very different profiles and marketing strategies.

GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta, the tried-and-true drug already approved to treat systemic lupus, nabbed its lupus nephritis indication in December, while upstart Aurinia snagged its first-ever drug approval with Lupkynis' FDA nod one month later.

GSK’s marketing leans on Benlysta's established lupus awareness and education, adding lupus nephritis to its digital communications and to its sales reps’ portfolio of indications to take to doctors already on their routes. Meanwhile, Aurinia began its pro-targeted awareness campaign, "Time Is Nephrons,” in October and spent its pandemic months readying reps and creating marketing materials so it could hit the ground running upon approval.

So what do doctors think so far? That’s what Spherix Global Insights analysts dove in to find out, tracking perception of the new drugs through its launch assessment system using physician data and interviews.

RELATED: GSK fires up 'Smolder' lupus awareness campaign to remind docs of potential organ damage

It turns out, there’s an emerging dichotomy between the types of doctors who commonly see lupus nephritis patients. Among nephrologists, the preferred candidate is Lupkynis, while rheumatologists more often say their patients are better suited for Benlysta.

Tucker Hurtado, Spherix’s head of nephrology franchise, said safety and the familiarity of Benlysta resonates with the rheumatologists. On the other hand, nephrologists, who often see patients with more advanced kidney disease, are looking for new and potentially stronger solutions and lean toward Lupkynis, she said.

Doctors are also parsing out opinions of the drugs based on patients’ disease progression. Benlysta is seen as better for mild and moderate cases, while Lupkynis is being used more often for moderate to severe cases and to treat more aggressive progression, Spherix said.

While GSK and Benlysta started with already solid brand awareness with doctors, Aurinia is making some inroads. In Spherix’s survey, more than half of the doctors interviewed said they had seen a Lupkynis rep. When asked specifically about Lupkyis’ launch, one-fourth of the physicians said Aurinia has done a good job, Hurtado said.

RELATED: Aurinia snags FDA approval for lupus nephritis med Lupkynis, its first drug launch

The lupus nephritis options now center on Benlysta and Lupkynis, but a new raft of lupus meds is potentially on the way—including drugs approved for other uses such as Roche Genentech’s Gazyva in cancer and Janssen's Tremfya and Novartis' Cosentyx for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Other new lupus meds in testing include Bristol Myers Squibb's TYK2 inhibitor deucravacitinib and AstraZeneca's monoclonal antibody anifrolumab.

“It’s going to be a hot market in a few years,” Hurtado said.

Studying how Benlysta and Lupkynis are addressing unmet needs in the market could offer the pipeline products a preview of what's to come and where they might fit. For instance, the rheumatologists acknowledged comfort with high safety profiles could give the already-established Tremfya and Cosentyx an advantage.

List prices will likely play a role, too. Rheumatologists are accustomed to higher-priced next-generation drugs and working to help patients pay for them, but nephrologists are less exposed to that, Hurtado said.

“With all the new nephrology products out now, it’s not an isolated market anymore," she said. "Pricing is definitely something everyone should be paying attention to."