Novartis playing catch-up in cancer? Not us, says top oncology exec

Novartis ($NVS) may be trailing behind Big Pharma rivals that already have immuno-oncology treatments on the market. But the company insists that doesn't mean it's not well positioned in oncology.

Novartis' Bill Hinshaw

While the Swiss drugmaker may not count any of the next-gen cancer fighters in its marketed lineup--such as the PD-1 immunotherapies now getting so much press--it does have a number of targeted therapies that provide a "wonderful opportunity" for combinations and sequences, Bill Hinshaw, EVP and U.S. head for Novartis Oncology, said recently at the company's "Innovating for Patients" media event.

Immuno-oncology is "not going to wipe out cancer," he said. And that means there will be a need for both immuno-oncology agents and the targeted cancer meds Novartis boasts. That includes Tafinlar and Mekinist, a pair of promising melanoma therapies it snagged in the GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) asset swap.

"If you look at the data so far, that's what it indicates," he told FiercePharmaMarketing in an interview.

Of course, like many of its Big Pharma peers, Novartis has immuno-oncology efforts underway, too. Along with rivals Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) and Kite Pharma ($KITE), it's blazing a trail in cellular therapy. Its "breakthrough"-designated CAR-T treatment, CTL019, is made by extracting T cells from patients and equipping them with chimeric antigen receptors, essentially training the immune system's foot soldiers to hunt down and kill tumor cells.

As Hinshaw acknowledged, though, "Novartis is a leader in some areas in immuno-oncology, and in other areas we're working to catch up"--and the company counts the checkpoint inhibitor field among the latter. Last year, it picked up Massachusetts biotech CoStim to gain an entry point into the PD-1 race, though its efforts there are still in the early going; prospect PDR001 just started first-in-human trials in April.

In contrast, competitors Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK) already have their checkpoint inhibitors--Opdivo and Keytruda, respectively--racing to snap up market share. They're also starting to rack up additional indications beyond their initial melanoma nods. Opdivo has already done that in lung cancer, grabbing a quick FDA thumbs up earlier this year.

Missing out on riding that early wave will hurt Novartis--and other second-wave contenders, like a Sanofi ($SNY)-Regeneron ($REGN) tandem and a Pfizer ($PFE)-Merck KGaA act--when it comes to grabbing a piece of the PD-1/PD-L1 pie, Morningstar analysts wrote in a March report. Given the first-mover advantage of Bristol-Myers, Merck, Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN), "we see the potential of the second wave as unlikely to take much market share," they wrote.

In the meantime, though, the Basel-based pharma will keep plugging away with those aforementioned targeted therapies. Tafinlar and Mekinist, in particular, have shown promise as a combo, reducing the risk of death by 29% versus Tafinlar on its own.