GlaxoSmithKline's HIV bright spot could get brighter with new Tivicay combo meds

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) doesn't have many groupies these days, what with sliding Advair sales and a growth strategy that, if successful, will deliver slow-but-steady increases rather than major leaps.

But a couple of meds in its HIV-focused joint venture ViiV Healthcare might deserve fans of their own. Tivicay (dolutegravir) and its combo-drug cousin Triumeq drove a 65% increase in ViiV revenue in the third quarter, with £157 million and £211 million in respective sales.

In fact, talk of extending that franchise was among the few presentations that got a thumbs-up from analysts after Tuesday's R&D day. GSK is working on other dolutegravir combinations, including one with rilpivirine and another with the standby HIV med 3TC. Triumeq combines dolutegravir with two meds, abacavir and lamivudine. Sales expectations for dolutegravir and its combos range up to $5 billion at peak.

"The dolutegravir franchise has clearly been a bright spot for GSK," Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson wrote in an investor note after GSK's presentations, while Leerink Partners analysts went a bit farther, saying, "We agree that dolutegravir is quickly becoming a cornerstone of future HIV treatment."

GSK plans to launch the rilpivirine combo in 2018 and the 3TC version in 2019, Anderson noted, pointing out that Merck & Co. ($MRK) has a potential spoiler in its once-a-day Isentress, expected to launch in 2017.

Gilead's Paul Carter

Of course another competitor won't want ViiV to get much of a jump on its own HIV lineup, and that's Gilead Sciences ($GILD); despite its successes in hepatitis C, the Foster City, CA-based company still relies on HIV for a big chunk of its sales. "Triumeq has been doing well on its launch, and it has been taking some market share from Gilead," Gilead EVP of commercial operations Paul Carter said during Gilead's Q3 earnings call.

Triumeq's clinical data backup includes a trial in which it bested a combo regimen based on Gilead's Viread. Meanwhile, Gilead has invested plenty of money in its next round of launches, based on its Viread follow-up, tenofovir alafenamide fumarate, aka TAF. Viread is a staple ingredient in Gilead's HIV combo meds, and the company's TAF-based versions have beat the Viread varieties in clinical trials.

- see the GSK call transcript at Seeking Alpha

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