Novartis aims new Gilenya campaign at young MS patients

Novartis ($NVS) is thinking young. The Swiss drugmaker is using a cheeky ad campaign, targeted at 20- and 30-somethings, not only in magazines but also via websites and social media.

The idea is to catch patients soon after diagnosis, because "early treatment makes the most impact," Novartis MS chief Dagmar Rosa-Bjorkeson told the New York Times. Many patients are now diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, which means they're likely to do their research and connect with others online, she said.

In fact, the "Hey, MS, Take This!" campaign was inspired by chatter on blogs and social media. "[P]eople were saying that 'this disease is not going to stop me,' " Rosa-Bjorkeson told the NYT. The ads feature patients sticking out their tongues, with Gilenya capsules on them, essentially thumbing their noses at the disease.

Novartis needs to find a new edge in the MS market, where it faces not only well-established injectable drugs, but two new oral rivals, Biogen Idec's ($BIIB) much-anticipated Tecfidera and Sanofi's ($SNY) Aubagio. Biogen's was approved just last week, and the company priced it at $54,900 per year, to undercut Gilenya's $60,000 price. Aubagio is even less at $45,000.

Gilenya was the first oral treatment for MS, and it has the first-to-market advantage. But that early entry also allowed side-effect reports to multiply as Gilenya use expanded. Novartis reported that one Gilenya patient died, and European regulators investigated other death reports. The pill came up for safety review by FDA as well, and its label now carries warnings about heart risks. Regulators now require doctors to monitor patients closely as they begin Gilenya treatment, to see whether they react poorly to that first dose.

The safety concerns put a damper on Gilenya sales, and some analysts have cut their sales forecasts. They're still expecting $2 billion in peak sales, though.

- see the NYT coverage

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