Drugmakers rebranding around oncology, rare diseases could provide 2020 preview

For drugmakers like AstraZeneca, a pivot to oncology was a major win for its strategic vision in 2019. (AstraZeneca)

Drugmakers are constantly reviewing their businesses to figure out what's working and what isn't. Over the past several years, those reviews have led to asset swaps and slim-downs, with companies trading, selling or spinning businesses that weren't getting the job done. Lately, though? They've resulted in full-scale rebrands for some pharmas—more often than not, yielding a new focus on oncology, rare diseases or both—and more could join the fold in 2020.

French drugmaker Sanofi earlier this month moved to do exactly that when it trumpeted a slice-and-dice strategy that would gut its cardiovascular and diabetes R&D—two longtime hallmarks of its business, thanks to blockbusters such as Plavix and Lantus. It also unveiled plans to strip away costs throughout its global business, with the intent to cut €2 billion by 2022, and to funnel those savings into oncology and rare diseases.

But a pivot into those two fields isn't a novel concept, with a wave of companies making similar pushes in the past year or so.

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

At GSK, the focus in 2019––and in 2018, for that matter––was rebuilding the company's oncology pipeline under CEO Emma Walmsley after previous chief Andrew Witty back in 2015 offloaded most of the drugmaker's cancer drugs in a massive asset swap with Novartis. And this time last year, the company was adding a marketed cancer med to the mix with a $5.1 billion buyout of Tesaro.

In January, just a month after GSK agreed to that acquisition, Walmsley boasted that the drugmaker had doubled its oncology asset count––17, at that point––including Tesaro's already-approved PARP inhibitor Zejula. Along with two other Tesaro assets, GSK said it was advancing a BCMA antibody-drug conjugate in multiple myeloma, aiming to reach the market in 2020. And in September, GSK pushed $120 million into a new biologics plant in Pennsylvania in order to keep up with its oncology demands.

In other words, it doesn't much resemble the picture Witty laid out when he architected the Novartis swap. 

RELATED: AstraZeneca rejigs commercial ranks around cancer, biopharma in wake of Mallon's departure

While it started earlier, AstraZeneca, too, has reimagined itself as an oncology player lately in order to pick itself up post-patent cliff. But this year saw an increased focus following the departure of AZ's strategy chief, Mark Mallon: In January, the drugmaker announced a sweeping restructuring around its oncology business. 

Booming cancer sales drove the move, with major growth from drugs including EGFR med Tagrisso, PARP-inhibitor Lynparza and PD-L1 med Imfinzi. And in April, CEO Pascal Soriot announced a "next phase" in the drugmaker's strategic plan centered on cancer and its booming business in China. 

The rare disease field has also seen an influx of drugmakers moving in or doubling down. Among them is Horizon Therapeutics, once known for its repurposing of older meds and astronomical price hikes. After making its own commitment to focus on rare diseases, the company made big strides toward the market in 2019: Just last week, an FDA advisory committee gave its backing to eye drug teprotumumab, which Horizon acquired through a $145 million buy of River Vision in 2017. 

RELATED: Emerging markets drugs worth $3B could be next on Takeda’s chopping board: report

Takeda is another pharma that's fashioned itself as a rare disease company lately, thanks to its December 2018 acquisition of Shire. The drugmaker's yearlong initiative to cull its underperforming emerging markets assets and refocus on rare diseases will likely continue in the new year, with a much-anticipated European over-the-counter sale still under discussion.

Starting at the top of the new year, CEO Christophe Weber made good on his promise to hive off Takeda's weak performers, announcing in January that Takeda planned a $3 billion selloff of its emerging markets business. The drugmaker followed that promise up in February with a "road map" created through its partnership with Microsoft and Eurodis-Rare Diseases Europe that outlined three pathways to rare disease drug development. 

Takeda's asset unloading began in earnest in May when it sold Shire's dry-eye drug Xiidra to Novartis for $3.4 billion. Then, Takeda wrapped up the sale of 30 OTC and prescription drugs in the Middle East and Africa to Switzerland’s Acino International for more than $200 million, the companies said in October. German generics maker Stada followed with a $660 million purchase of 20 Takeda OTC assets in Russia, Georgia and several other countries in November. 

RELATED: With pivot to less-rare diseases, Alexion needs a new sticker-price plan, CEO says

Even rare disease stalwart Alexion kicked off a transformation in 2019, unveiling plans to go from "ultra-rare" to "rare" when it came to diseases to target. Its plan for the near future will be broadening the scope of its approved indications to include diseases with larger patient pools.

The first shot in that campaign came with Soliris' FDA approval in June to treat neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder, a potential $1 billion indication for the drug. The disease is estimated to affect about 4,000 to 8,000 Americans each year, Alexion said––still rare, but not as rare as the drug's other indications, such as paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria and atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome.

In an attempt to bolster its pipeline in other rare diseases, Alexion committed to a spending splurge in 2019 driven by Soliris' strong sales and the success of its switching campaign to follow-up drug Ultomiris. In October, the drugmaker ponied up $930 million to buy biotech Achillion and its oral small-molecule factor D inhibitors. That pickup closely followed the replacement of Chief Financial Officer Paul Clancy in favor of Aradhana Sarin, M.D., Alexion’s chief strategy and business officer responsible for the drugmaker’s nearly $3 billion in recent pipeline acquisitions.

Meanwhile, Alexion is testing Ultomiris in both multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, widening the drug's potential patient population far beyond where it currently sits.

Will other drugmakers follow these companies' lead in 2020? That remains to be seen. But with both oncology and rare disease drugs putting up big sales numbers in 2019, it seems like a good bet.