Alkermes Adds Cancer, MS Drugs To Growing Portfolio

7/17/13Follow @benthefidler

When you say the words multiple sclerosis treatment or cancer immunotherapy, Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) isn’t the first company that comes to mind. But the Dublin and Waltham, MA-based biotech is trying to change that today as it rolls out a few key programs it has been keeping under wraps.

At its R&D day today, Alkermes is unveiling three new programs coming that have been in stealth mode up until now: a program of small-molecule monomethyl fumarate drugs to treat multiple sclerosis; a cancer immunotherapy candidate known as RDB-1419; and a non-addictive pain relief pill called ALKS-7106. The announcements continue Alkermes’ metamorphosis into a fully integrated company with enough cash flow from marketed products to support a good-sized R&D portfolio. The changes at Alkermes have helped vault its market capitalization up to more than $4 billion over the past few years.

“It’s a really important transformational moment for the company,” says CEO Richard Pops.

Even so, it’s one that is also likely to give investors pause: what makes Alkermes think it its own drugs can compete in ultra-competitive fields like MS and cancer immunotherapy? MS powerhouse Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) began selling dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera)—a long-awaited oral pill for MS—this year and it has, by all accounts, been every bit the success it was hyped to be. And cancer immunotherapies, which harness the immune system to fight cancer, are part of a turf war being fought by the likes of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche, and Merck.

Richard Pops, CEO of Alkermes

But Pops isn’t shying away from the challenge. Alkermes wants to take on chronic diseases that affect lots of patients, and it sees a way to put itself into the mix. This isn’t to say Alkermes wants to dive full-bore into cancer or MS, or pour millions into finding undiscovered molecular targets the rest of the industry hasn’t found. Rather, it wants to pick its spots in a big disease area, find a place it can add tangible value, and strike.

Here’s how: Alkermes thinks it can take either known pharmacology, or well-studied or proven molecular targets, and add value to them by creating new molecular entities that have a big benefit for specific patient groups. This is the strategy that made Alkermes successful for years, by helping develop longer-lasting versions of drugs like risperidone (Risperdal Consta) for schizophrenia and exenatide (Bydureon) for Type 2 diabetes. The company’s R&D team is looking to build on successes like that, by engineering improvements into both branded drugs like Biogen’s new oral MS pill, and generic products like olanzapine, a compound that once made big money for Eli Lilly under the brand name Zyprexa.

“We’re not daunted at all by the fact that certain therapeutic categories have multiple entrants,” Pops says. “We wouldn’t go there if we didn’t think that we could make a major contribution in a very, very clear and directed way.”

Take MS, for example. Pops notes that Biogen’s drug is actually … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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