Biogen Idec, Trying to Go Beyond Rituxan, Assembles Cancer Drug Pipeline

7/16/09Follow @xconomy

Biogen Idec, as avid biotech readers know, is the world’s largest maker of multiple sclerosis drugs. Not the world’s largest maker of cancer drugs. Not even close.

Yet the Cambridge, MA-based biotech company (NASDAQ: BIIB) has its sights on carving out a bigger niche in the fiercely competitive field of cancer drug development. It’s a market with plenty of room—growing from $66 billion in worldwide sales in 2008 to more than $84 billion by 2012, according to Cowen & Company.

Right now, Biogen has one slice of that, which comes solely from its partial ownership, along with Roche and Genentech, of rituximab (Rituxan). That drug was the original trailblazer in the field of targeted antibodies, made to seek out cancer cells and avoid healthy ones, when it was first approved by the FDA in 1997 for patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It generated $2.6 billion in U.S. sales last year. But that drug cracked into the market 12 years ago, and there’s no second-generation, or third-generation version yet on the market. The company didn’t have much to brag about a few weeks ago at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual extravaganza. I wanted to know what Biogen is really doing to improve upon that, so I spoke to Greg Reyes, the company’s senior vice president of oncology R&D.

Reyes, a pharmaceutical and biotech veteran who joined the company in October, is based in San Diego. He oversees a cancer research operation with 230 people. They are responsible for a pipeline that now includes 12 different drug candidates at various stages of development. Speaking broadly, the company is pouring a lot of its energy into understanding how its drugs work, crafting really rigorous clinical trials at earlier stages to separate the wheat from the chaff, and studying biomarkers that might offer clues into which patients are likely to repond to therapy, and which won’t, Reyes says. Investors, doctors, and patients will find out in coming years whether this effort will bear any fruit.

“If we are having this same conversation five years from now, and we’re still talking … Next Page »

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