Can statin-maker Kowa help Amarin jump-start Vascepa sales?

It hasn't been easy being Amarin over the last several months. The Irish drugmaker ($AMRN) slammed into one obstacle after another. New chemical entity status for the key ingredient in its cardiovascular drug Vascepa? No, says the FDA. Permission to market the drug to vast numbers of new patients? No again.

But now, Amarin doesn't have to walk that rough road alone. Kowa Pharmaceuticals' U.S. unit has signed up to help market Vascepa, the triglyceride-fighting pill derived from fish oil. And that means almost three times as many sales reps will be peddling the Vascepa message.

That's good, given that Amarin slashed its sales force back in October, when an FDA advisory panel voted against a broader label for Vascepa. The omega-3 drug is approved to treat the relatively few patients with ultrahigh triglyceride levels, but Amarin--understandably--had asked to market Vascepa as an add-on to statin therapy for garden variety high triglycerides.

Japan-based Kowa specializes in cardiovascular drugs, so it knows the territory Amarin has been trying so hard to conquer. It has 250 reps, almost twice Amarin's head count. And according to the companies' statement, those reps already work with many of the same doctors who might prescribe Vascepa.

"Kowa's commercial reach and customer base make it a valuable commercial partner," Amarin CEO John Thero said in the statement. "Kowa Pharmaceuticals America has a highly motivated and talented sales force that complements Amarin's sales team and substantially increases its reach into our target market."

So what's Kowa's track record? The Japanese drugmaker's lead product is Livalo (pitavastatin), a cholesterol-fighting statin pill that it comarketed with Eli Lilly ($LLY) till last spring. Launched in the U.S. in June 2010, Livalo was designed to work as well as other statin drugs without some of its rivals' side effects. But Livalo hasn't exactly sold like hotcakes in the U.S. Worldwide, it brought in $572 million last year, much of that in Kowa's home country.

Courtesy of Kowa Pharmaceuticals

Obviously, Livalo was a bit late to the statin party, with Pfizer's ($PFE) giant Lipitor nearing the end of its patent life just as Livalo hit the market. Vascepa does have more-or-less head-to-head competition in GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Lovaza, but making a go of this alternate set of blood-lipid meds is more about building a market than finding a place in an already hotly competitive one. And if Amarin does eventually persuade the FDA to approve Vascepa for broader use alongside a statin, Kowa's reps will be on hand with both.

The marketing partnership leaves Amarin calling the shots and booking the sales. Kowa has agreed to foot the bill for some incremental costs of adding Vascepa to its reps' kit bags, and to hit certain detailing quotas; in return, it collects a copromotion fee that's essentially a commission. Amarin will pay a percentage of Vascepa gross margins, beginning in the high single digits this year and growing to the low 20s in 2018.

Kowa's U.S. CEO, Ben Stakely, said the company is "impressed" with Vascepa and looks forward to making its case with doctors. "[W]e can now speak to a range of important lipid-related issues that impact our target physicians' practices," Stakely said. We'll see how impressive their results prove to be.

- see the release from Amarin and Kowa