AstraZeneca's launch plan for first-in-class lupus med Saphnelo centers on patient-designed support program

Three lupus patients are telling their stories on AstraZeneca's blog highlighting the challenges, one day after AZ nabbed an FDA nod for Saphnelo. (AstraZeneca)

AstraZeneca is taking a cue from lupus patients in launching its freshly approved Saphnelo. Actually, not just a cue—the company turned entire chunks of the marketing plan over to them.

The British pharma first turned to patients and advocacy groups 18 months ago to start building a patient support program for the first-in-class systemic lupus therapy.

One key ingredient in the process—and outcome—is diversity. Lupus disproportionately affects Black, Asian and Latino people, so AstraZeneca sought help from those communities to design and now run the program.

Counselors staffing the support platform are trained to be “culturally competent” and include a diverse group of nurses, bilingual speakers and coaches, said Mina Makar, senior VP of respiratory and immunology business at AstraZeneca. The company even sought advice from its own Black and Latino employees, some of whom have lupus, to figure out effective ways to communicate with the patient community.

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On approval day Monday, AstraZeneca’s salesforce was out speaking with physicians, medical affairs teams were getting in touch with thought leaders and market access teams were working with payers. But communicating directly with these patients is even more important, Makar said.

“Over the past several years working in lupus, we’ve found that these patients really see themselves as warriors—and they want to be well-educated and engaged," Makar said. "The challenge is a lot of times they feel isolated and misunderstood. They don’t feel a lot of people understand what they’re going through.”

To further get the word out to patients, AstraZeneca is partnering with several of them—starting Tuesday, with three women who talk about their lupus diagnosis and experience on the pharma’s blog AZ&You.

Margo, Ingrid and Sheraya will share their stories online for the public, but the three also worked behind the scenes on internal AstraZeneca programs to help employees better understand lupus patients’ experiences. Ingrid was also one of the patients who helped design the patient support program.

AZ's launch for Saphnelo, the first new lupus drug in 10 years, is a chance to go to market not only as a new option, but a completely different one.

The current systemic lupus erythematosus treatment leader, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta, inhibits B-cell activating factor, while Saphnelo is a type I interferon receptor antagonist.

AstraZeneca messaging for Saphnelo keys in on its role in blocking excessive interferon—present in up to 80% of patients—to stake its claim as an expansive alternative.

“Lupus is a really heterogenous disease. Every patient is different, whether from a diversity perspective, an age perspective, the organ that is impacted or the level of severity,” Makar said.

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With Saphnelo as the first-in-class type 1 interferon blocker, AstraZeneca is pressing the point that no matter how different patients are, the drug works broadly across most cases.

Although Benlysta was first approved in 2011, newer indications for a self-injectable version in 2017 and a second indication in lupus nephritis in December now have it on track to reach blockbuster status this year. It notched $545 million in sales, and a whopping 30% growth, for the first six months of 2021.

AstraZeneca believes Saphnelo has blockbuster potential as well—and plenty of room in the market for both drugs. Fewer than one-third of the estimated 300,000 U.S. lupus patients is on a biologic, Makar said.

“It’s not just about Saphnelo, it’s about how do we raise awareness that these lives are really challenged, there are better therapies and we need to be diagnosing patients earlier,” he said.