Novartis has fresh data to support newly acquired CLL drug Arzerra

Novartis' ($NVS) deal to buy GlaxoSmithKline's cancer drugs closed only weeks ago and the Swiss drugmaker already has some positive data it can point to for Arzerra, a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) drug it picked up in the $16 billion buyout. Given the competition in the category, Novartis can use whatever boost it can get as it works to extract additional sales out of the portfolio of oncology products.

Novartis announced today that data from a Phase III study published in The Lancet showed certain patients who were given Arzerra along with chemo drug chlorambucil, saw average progression free survival run to 22.4 months compared to 13.1 months for those patients who received just chemotherapy. The patients were those for whom fludarabine-based therapy was considered inappropriate, mostly because of their age or because they had other life-threatening conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease or COPD. Adverse reactions for the group were slightly higher when Arzerra was added in.

"Finding effective treatments with clinically acceptable safety profiles for elderly patients with CLL and for those with co-existent chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions continues to be a challenge," lead author Prof. Peter Hillmen of St. James's University Hospital in the U.K. said in a statement.

Arzerra is not one of one of the bigger sellers among the oncology drugs that Novartis adds to its own portfolio of cancer treatments. It generated about $80 million of the $1.85 billion in sales the GSK ($GSK) drugs produced in 2014. Arzerra competes with products like Imbruvica (ibrutinib), from Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen unit and Pharmacyclics ($PCYC). In data published last year, Imbruvica bested Arzerra in a head-to-head trial of patients with relapsed leukemia. Imbruvica treatment provided better progression-free survival, overall survival and overall response rate. It also is a pill, instead of an injection. Analysts are predicting sales of $3.37 billion by 2018 for Imbruvica. On Tuesday, J&J reported that Imbruvica delivered $116 million, in sales in the first quarter, up more than $100 million from $10 million for the same quarter last year.

The more promising products among those that Novartis got in the deal with GSK, which closed last month, are Tafinlar and Mekinist. The melanoma-fighting duo last year yielded about $312 million in sales and analysts expect they will eventually reach blockbuster levels. They also gave Novartis drugs in a category of treatment where it had a void.

Still, Novartis today embraced the new data for Arzerra. In the announcement, Dr. Alessandro Riva, global head of Novartis Oncology Development and Medical Affairs, said, "We are excited that Arzerra is now part of the Novartis oncology portfolio of products, and look forward to building upon the body of evidence that supports the clinical benefit of Arzerra for appropriate patients with CLL."

- here's the release