J&J taps kidney specialist Vifor for Invokana marketing help

J&J agreed to hand over marketing rights for Invokana in diabetic kidney disease. (Johnson & Johnson)

Johnson & Johnson scored a one-of-a-kind win for SGLT2 med Invokana in September with an FDA approval to treat kidney disease. Now, as a newcomer to the field, J&J is seeking an experienced hand to help sell its flagging med.

The company has agreed (PDF) to share marketing in the new indication with Vifor Pharma, it said Monday. The agreement will allow Vifor to market Invokana for patients with Type 2 diabetes and diabetic kidney disease (DKD) to U.S. nephrologists––a group it knows well, thanks to its 11 kidney disease products currently on the market.

J&J will back up Vifor's dedicated nephrology force with its existing sales reps and other "institutional" reps who specialize in calling on internists, diabetologists, endocrinologists and cardiologists, the companies said, adding that both of their field medical teams will be supporting the new collaboration.

The pair didn't disclose the deal's financial terms.

"We look forward to working closely with the Janssen team to maximize the potential of this important new treatment for people with Type 2 diabetes who are also suffering from diabetic kidney disease," Vifor COO Stefan Schulze said in a statement. A J&J spokesperson could not be reached for comment by press time. 

RELATED: J&J's suffering Invokana scores new kidney disease nod. Can it turn sales around?

J&J's decision to seek backup in marketing Invokana's newest indication comes as the drugmaker seeks to turn sales of the medicine around. 

The FDA approved Invokana plus standard-of-care ACE inhibitors to treat DKD after J&J reported in April that the combo bested placebo at stalling kidney disease progression and fending off cardiovascular problems in patients with Type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease. J&J stopped the trial early last year and filed the data with the FDA in March. 

The label expansion was a positive for Invokana after the FDA slapped it with a black box warning for amputation risks in 2017. The year before––in 2016––Invokana posted sales of $1.4 billion, but the figure sank to $881 million in 2018. 

In the first nine months of this year, Invokana hit just $588 million in global sales, well below its $653 million pace from 2018.

RELATED: AstraZeneca's Farxiga nabs first CV approval from the FDA. Will a bigger one follow?

With Invokana on the ropes, J&J has watched as other SGLT2 meds––particularly AstraZeneca's Farxiga––have pushed ahead with potential class-leading data of their own. 

Last week, Farxiga scored an FDA approval to reduce the risk of heart failure hospitalizations in diabetes patients. That nod was Farxiga's first in the heart-helping category, but an even bigger potential approval is in the wings. 

Farxiga is under priority review for a label expansion targeting cardiovascular risks in patients with or without Type 2 diabetes. That nod would make Farxiga the first in its class with an approval for non-diabetic patients and could potentially lead the way for other SGLT2 drugs to follow suit. 

The FDA also fast-tracked Farxiga in August for its own approval to treat chronic kidney disease.