With Tesaro in the bag, GSK's cancer pipeline is pumping again, CEO says

Emma Walmsley
Emma Walmsley took the reins at GlaxoSmithKline back in 2017, and has implemented an R&D overhaul that includes a refocus on oncology. (GSK)

SAN FRANCISCO—When she put cancer back on the front burner last year, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley gave the company a big task. After all, her predecessor had traded away most of GSK's oncology assets to Novartis.

Now, the company has all but doubled its immuno-oncology pipeline, Walmsley said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, partly thanks to last month's Tesaro buyout.

GSK agreed to shell out $5 billion for the oncology-focused biotech, nabbing the already approved PARP inhibitor Zejula as well as a range of pipeline assets.

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Zejula, which is facing hot competition in the PARP field, is well positioned for growth, Walmsley said. Now approved as a maintenance treatment for patients with ovarian cancer and certain other cancers, Zejula has “considerable upside potential” in earlier lines of treatment and new tumor types, she argued.

Tesaro also brought along a PD-1 inhibitor that's admittedly way behind in the field. But it's useful for developing in-house combination therapies, she said. 

Meanwhile, in its own pipeline, GSK is advancing a BCMA antibody-drug conjugate in multiple myeloma, aiming to reach the market in 2020. The company is testing the med, now called GSK2857916, in the fourth-, second- and first-line settings, and in a recent report, life science intelligence firm EvaluatePharma projected the drug could generate blockbuster-level sales by 2024. GSK has various other cancer meds in phase 1 and 2, too.

“Overall, with three pivotal stage assets which have potential to launch within the next few years, and 12 other assets in the clinic, GSK’s oncology pipeline is gaining strength, and will start to impact our revenue growth outlook from next year," Walmsley said.

The developments come years after the drugmaker traded away cancer offerings in an asset swap with Novartis, doubling down on vaccines and consumer healthcare. Former CEO Andrew Witty left in 2017, and when Walmsley took the reins she overhauled the company’s R&D strategy to include a refocus on oncology.

But even as GSK builds out its cancer pipeline, the company expects to continue to leaning on HIV, where it recently launched a two-in-one med Juluca. Looking ahead, a “much bigger” opportunity—even in the face of tough Gilead competition—is a once-daily dolutegravir/lamivudine combo, expected to win U.S. and EU approvals this year, Walmsley said.

RELATED: GlaxoSmithKline mulls respiratory exit to support big bet on cancer R&D 

Beyond that treatment, GSK is also developing a long-acting injectable that could represent a “truly differentiated approach" to HIV, Walmsley said. Patients say daily pills are a constant reminder of their disease, and a monthly or bimonthly injection could make HIV a “smaller part” of their lives.

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