Novartis adds 100 jobs at Lek site in Slovenia as it muscles up on biosimilars

Novartis ($NVS) was the first drugmaker to get a biosimilar approved in the U.S. and has set itself up to be a major player in the growth of the biologic copies. That is going to require more development muscle, and so it has expanded its Lek subsidiary in Slovenia, adding 100 jobs in the process.

Lek, part of Novartis' Sandoz, already develops and manufactures active ingredients for biosimilars at its Biopharmaceuticals Mengeš site. But last week, Lek opened new laboratories that will allow the center to do development for the final dosage form for biosimilars, along with quality control and biopharmaceuticals technical development, the company said.

Novartis invested about €10 million ($10.8 million) to add the new facilities, bringing its total spend on the facility to €64 million ($69 million). The 100 new jobs boost the headcount at the facility to more than 350.

Sandoz's Carol Lynch, global head of biopharmaceuticals and oncology injectables

"We have exceptionally strong biotechnology talent in Slovenia involved in almost every aspect of biopharmaceutical development and manufacturing," Carol Lynch, Sandoz' global head of biopharmaceuticals and oncology injectables, said in a statement.

Sandoz placed a milestone in the U.S. market last year when the FDA anointed its Zarxio, a copy of Amgen's ($AMGN) Neupogen (filgrastim), as the first biosimilar to be approved in the U.S. The drugmaker also sells filgrastim in the EU and Japan, as well as a biosimilar of Amgen's Epogen and a biosimilar of a growth hormone. Novartis considers that just the beginning. It has a pipeline full of other biosimilars, including monoclonal antibodies, the largest and fastest-growing part of the biologics market.

Despite the big bet, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez has said he expects a slow uptake with biosimilars and is not looking for big sales in that area until at least 2020. But biosimilar sales are exceeding some expectations in Europe where biosimilars of Merck's ($MRK) arthritis blockbuster Remicade have been heavily discounted by Pfizer's ($PFE) new Hospira unit and South Korea's Celltrion.

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