Eli Lilly's diabetes strategy doesn't include big staff-up in sales

Don't expect Eli Lilly to pump up its sales force as new diabetes drugs make their debuts over the next three years. As Lilly Diabetes President Enrique Conterno tells Bloomberg, the company ($LLY) plans to lean on its broad product portfolio to grow sales, rather than sending out legions of reps to push new drugs brand-by-brand.

"I don't think the market is responsive today to putting more and more sales people focused on brands," Conterno told the news service. "We start with the patient and think of all the therapies we could have for him."

That's a contrast to rival Novo Nordisk's ($NVO) approach. The Danish drugmaker beefed up its U.S. sales force in anticipation of a Tresiba launch, a hope quickly squelched by the FDA's request for more data on the new drug. Novo put those new reps behind its other diabetes products, including Victoza (liraglutide), its already fast-growing GLP-1 drug. Growth there could help compensate for a Tresiba delay, or so the theory went.

"It gave us additional firepower, you could say, to support the modern insulins and Victoza," CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen said in an interview last month. "We increased the sales force perhaps for other reasons, but it worked out."

It did seem to work; Victoza sales grew 32% over the first half of the year to 5.55 billion kroner ($1 billion), and the modern insulins pumped up by 15% to 18.6 billion kroner, or about $3.37 billion. A 10% increase in Victoza's price during the second quarter didn't put a crimp on growth, either.

But Novo recently lost a couple of big contracts with pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts. Perhaps because of Novo's price increase, the PBM cut out Victoza and NovoLog (insulin aspart) in favor of Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and AstraZeneca's ($AZN) Byetta and Bydureon, and Eli Lilly's Humalog (insulin lispro).

"The environment is playing out in such a way that I think validates our strategy," Conterno said. He figures on adding new reps in a limited way "wherever we may need it" as Lilly rolls out new diabetes meds, including dulaglutide, a potential Victoza competitor that beat Byetta and Merck's ($MRK) DPP-4 inhibitor Januvia in a recent trial.

There's also the simple fact that Lilly has been cutting reps rather than hiring them. Its top seller, Cymbalta, goes off patent soon, and the company said earlier this year that it would cut jobs and reshuffle others to bring costs down.

- read the Bloomberg story

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