Which pharma companies are the most innovative? Roche, AstraZeneca top the list

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Roche, AstraZeneca, Novartis and more rank among the top players on IDEA Pharma's latest pharma innovation and invention indices. (Pixabay)

The continued prosperity of a biopharma company is dependent on its ability to keep churning out breakthrough new drugs and turning them into commercial successes backed by a growing body of clinical evidence. Which shops are doing best on those terms?

In its latest two indices, IDEA Pharma has ranked AstraZeneca at the top of the pharma invention scale—awarding it "best pipeline" honors—and crowned Roche king in the land of innovation.

AstraZeneca previously sank to 12th place on the innovation scale but rose to 6th this time, and it remained at the top of the invention scale for the second straight year. How did the British drugmaker make it in 2019?

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IDEA handed AZ the honor mainly because of two drugs. First, after multiple failures in the field, AZ’s potentially first-in-class anti-IFNAR1 antibody anifrolumab succeeded in a phase 3 lupus trial after a mid-study endpoint tweak. The drug did better than placebo on a composite lupus disease activity score.

And COPD triplet Breztri Aerosphere demonstrated it could significantly cut the rate of disease exacerbations compared with two other Aerosphere delivery tech-based dual-drug combos. The fact that it could do that even when patients received just half the standard dosage of the budesonide component was remarkable in IDEA’s view. AZ said it would submit the additional data after the FDA declined to approve the new therapy last fall.

While the invention index focuses on a company’s pipeline, evaluating novelty and clinical development movement, innovation is defined by IDEA as a company's “return on invention.” In other words, invention is about coming up with innovative technologies, whereas innovation asks the question: “If two companies had the same molecule, which would be more successful with it?”

Roche jumped seven spots to land first on the innovation index, the first time the Swiss drugmaker has done so in the 10 versions IDEA has compiled to date.

RELATED: The 10 most-anticipated drug launches of 2020

IDEA attributed the significant rise to several milestones the company’s PD-L1 inhibitor Tecentriq achieved in 2019. It was the first immuno-oncology agent to nab an FDA nod in triple-negative breast cancer and the first to enter previously untreated extensive-stage small cell lung cancer. A combo of Tecentriq and Roche’s own Avastin also lengthened lives of new liver cancer patients compared with Bayer’s standard-of-care Nexavar, making it the first time in a decade that a treatment has improved survival in this population.

Roche’s multiple sclerosis blockbuster Ocrevus also saw multiple successes. For example, the drug showed it could significantly cut the risk of requiring a wheelchair among patients with the primary progressive form of the disease if given early.

In terms of other ranking changes, Novartis rose big time, and Vertex burst onto the innovation scene. Gilead Sciences made significant advancement in the invention race, but its innovation score fell sharply.

Roche's Swiss compatriot Novartis jumped six places for innovation, landing at No.3, while it continued to hold the No.4 spot for invention. IDEA elevated Novartis after it had “a historic year” with five novel drug approvals—Adakveo, Beovu, Mayzent, Piqray and Zolgensma—in 2020.

CDK4/6 inhibitor Kisqali’s first-in-class win of prolonging the lives of premenopausal women with HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer marked an advantage Pfizer’s market-leading blockbuster Ibrance doesn’t have. Repurposing Arzerra from a lagging leukemia treatment into a successful MS drug that could be a serious threat to Ocrevus helped round out a successful 2019 clinical run for Novartis, IDEA noted.

RELATED: 2019’s top 15 clinical trial flops (and a flip-flop)

Gilead’s business hung in there mainly thanks to HIV therapy Biktarvy after the hepatitis C market fell apart. But a major C-suite shakeup by new CEO Daniel O’Day at least shows the Big Biotech working for redemption. An FDA filing of its blockbuster arthritis hopeful filgotinib and a $5.1 billion extension of collaboration with that drug’s co-owner, Galapagos, likely boosted the company’s status on IDEA’s invention roster.

Other companies featured by IDEA include AbbVie, which held the runner-up position on the innovation index. While still heavily dependent on Humira, AbbVie last year won approvals for psoriasis med Skyrizi and JAK inhibitor Rinvoq in rheumatoid arthritis, two assets that UBS analyst Navin Jacob has said he sees huge potential in. And IDEA also figured they could soften the blow as AbbVie faces off Humira copycats in the U.S. market in 2023.

Meanwhile, Eli Lilly’s Reyvow approval for the acute treatment of migraines, as well as its Loxo Oncology buyout, helped the Indianapolis pharma rank 5th on this year’s innovation index and third for invention. Merck & Co. continued to rank among the top ten on the innovation scale on the back of multiple approvals for PD-1 star Keytruda. And Bristol Myers Squibb’s recent acquisition of Celgene catapulted the company to second on the invention scale.

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