JPM 2022: Eli Lilly CEO mulls using Novo's double-branding trick on tirzepatide—one obesity, one diabetes

Is there a good reason to split one drug into multiple brands?

Plenty of drugmakers have already made this decision, including Novo Nordisk with its Wegovy and Ozempic GLP-1 drugs. Now, Eli Lilly CEO Dave Ricks is weighing the idea with its blockbuster-in-waiting, tirzepatide.

Its fierce Danish rival already splits its injectable GLP-1 drug semaglutide into two separate brands: Ozempic for diabetes and Wegovy for obesity. The doses are different for each, so they bear separate drug approvals. But this also lets Novo market each brand for its own disease.

Lilly’s dual GIP/GLP-1 agonist tirzepatide, one of the most hotly anticipated drug launches of the year, is already at the FDA and could nab an approval this year. Peak sales are pegged at $5 billion by 2026, according to Evaluate estimates.

Ozempic is already making around $3.4 billion a year, and, with the obesity indication, this could swell to $8 billion at peak.

Lilly is initially set to sell tirzepatide as a diabetes treatment, but it's also eyeing obesity; the drug's first pivotal obesity trial, SURMOUNT-1, is slated to read out in April. It’s all to play in a tough but lucrative market, and it’s no surprise Lilly is looking over its shoulder at how Novo has worked things out.

RELATED: Demand for Novo Nordisk's new weight-loss drug Wegovy outstripped early supply, analysts say

When asked at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Tuesday about going with a two-brand strategy versus putting all indications under a single umbrella, Ricks said, “We’re having those discussions.”

“I can see pros and cons on all sides," Ricks said. "The reason why the competitors have done it in the past is more clear, [as] you had a pretty different market for those obesity treatments than diabetes.”

In the past, payers have been more willing to pay for diabetes drugs at a price point they wouldn't approach for obesity. “And that's because obesity meant weight loss, not medicalization of that important modifiable risk factor, which is now modifiable because we have these medicines,” said Ricks.

Ricks sees payers becoming "much more interested in treating obesity,” particularly commercial payers and self-insured large employers. Treating obesity would lower the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint problems and many other disorders.

That's “a huge part of their health cost structure," Ricks said.

One difference for Lilly is that tirzepatide for obesity will use the same dosing as tirzepatide for diabetes.

Using the same dose makes sense for tirzepatide, Ricks said, partly because "the titration already is slow and a little bit complicated, so we didn't want to make that more difficult than it needed to be."

The upshot? Lilly will weigh whether using two different brand names would benefit the company—or healthcare providers. 

"And if not, it’s OK, too," he said. "I think there's plenty of opportunity to expand use, whether we have two brands or one. And we're focused on really the ultimate benefit to the healthcare system here.”