Are obesity drugs nearing a breakout? Novo, Takeda think so

Novo Chief Science Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

Analysts have been waiting--and waiting--for drugmakers to realize the growth they've predicted for the obesity market. And with a couple of pharma companies preparing to pony up R&D and marketing resources for their obesity products, it could finally be on the way.

Novo Nordisk ($NVO)--whose weight-loss injection Saxenda won the favor of an FDA advisory panel last week--is preparing to bring on the "most eminent people" in the obesity field, Chief Science Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen told Bloomberg. In addition to adding R&D staffers by the hundreds, the Danish drugmaker plans to seek out collaborations with universities and biotechs that will spur some ideas for new therapies.

"We are taking a whole portfolio approach, pretty much like Novo Nordisk has done in diabetes, with different solutions for different people," Thomsen said, as quoted by the news service.

That's a big vote of confidence in the market for obesity drugs, which could bode well for other drugmakers trying to get traction for their weight-loss meds. Takeda, Orexigen's ($OREX) marketing partner on the just-approved weight-loss pill Contrave, recently told Medical Marketing & Media that it plans to devote a force of 900 sales reps to hawking the newcomer.

Novo has its own beefed-up field force ready to spur on Saxenda. If all goes well for Novo and Takeda, their new market entrants could trigger the long-anticipated arrival of a multibillion-dollar market for weight-loss drugs. With more than a third of U.S. adults considered obese by the CDC, there's no shortage of patients that could qualify for treatment.

Just 2 million of the 100 million potential patients are receiving a prescription weight-loss aid, Orexigen's Chief Commercial Officer Mark Booth said during a Thursday presentation. "It's a large, rapidly growing and vastly underserved market," he said, as quoted by MM&M.

But so far, next-gen obesity drugmakers have run into their fair share of troubles. They've struggled to persuade doctors to get behind weight-loss meds, patients to stay on them and payers to cover them. Qsymia sales woes spurred an all-out proxy war at California-based Vivus ($VVUS) last year, and rival Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals ($ARNA) hasn't fared much better, despite a marketing partnership with Japan's Eisai. In 2013, Qsymia pulled in just $23.7 million, with Belviq netting just slightly more at $25 million.

Analysts still insist a change is coming, though. Matthew Andrews at Wells Fargo has said he sees Contrave raking in $634 million in 2020 sales, but that figure could be as high as $1.2 billion if Orexigen wins approval for the drug in treating diabetes. He forecasts $481 million for Belviq and $396 million for Qsymia, and Bloomberg analyst estimates peg Saxenda's 2017 haul at $429 million.

Meanwhile, Arena is working on a growth plan of its own. The company is hoping that combining Belviq with generic weight-loss drug phentermine--of fen-phen fame--could spur a sales boost without the fen-phen cardio risks.

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