Study finds Roche's Actemra bests Abbott's blockbuster Humira

Swiss drug giant Roche ($RHHBY) today released data from a Phase IV study at the European League Against Rheumatism's annual conference in Berlin that showed its treatment Actemra--marketed in Europe as RoActemra--beat Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) blockbuster Humira in a head-to-head study on rheumatoid arthritis patients.

After 24 weeks, 65% patients on Actemra monotherapy saw a 20% reduction in swelling and pain, compared to 49% taking Humira, Roche says. Those on Actemra saw their cholesterol levels rise more. An Abbott spokesperson was quick to point out that the study involved patients taking the maximum dose of Actemra and the minimum dose of Humira.

The results are important as Roche and others position themselves against Abbott for a piece of the rheumatoid arthritis market which is estimated at $20 billion a year, according to Reuters. The condition affects about 1% of the world's adult population. Roche predicts Actemra could pass $1 billion a year in sales, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. Still, that is small compared to Humira which currently gets about $8 billion of that a year as one of the world's biggest sellers. Any erosion of that is significant to Abbott which is counting on the blockbuster to provide much of the cash flow it needs when this portion of its business is spun off into a new entity called AbbVie.

Roche's Actemra results may not be a game changer for doctors, suggests Andrew Weiss, a Vontobel analyst who predicts Actemra could hit sales of $2.1 billion. That idea was seconded by Maxime Dougados, arthritis league president, who told Bloomberg Businessweek: "I'm not sure it will radically change the management style tomorrow morning."

Usually those with rheumatoid arthritis get a combo of protein-based biologic therapies and methotrexate (MTX), but about 30% cannot tolerate MTX. Roche's drug, developed by its Genentech division, is approved in the U.S. and Europe for those patients and others who do not respond to that treatment.

But Roche is not the only contender in this space. Pfizer ($PFE) is developing a pill to treat the condition. And Bloomberg Businessweek reports that a second study released at the conference found that Orencia from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) had results about equal to Humira in those patients who hadn't taken a biological rheumatoid arthritis treatment before.

- read the Reuters story
- more from Bloomberg Businessweek
- here's the Genentech press release