Pfizer was where Pedro Lichtinger learned about pharmaceutical marketing from people who did some amazing things. For starters, New York-based Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) turned an old-school antifungal medicine into a $1.6 billion cash cow. Now as the CEO of San Diego-based Optimer Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: OPTR) Lichtinger is borrowing some ideas from that experience, looking to make the most of his company’s new antibiotic.
Optimer won FDA approval last May for its first marketed product, a twice-daily pill called fidaxomicin (Dificid). That drug is designed to fight a bug called C.difficile that causes diarrhea so severe it can kill patients, especially frail elderly people. It is a common problem in hospitals. The company got off to a respectable start, generating about $24 million in gross sales in its first six months. But the market for treating this pathogen, after it has been diagnosed in a hospital lab, isn’t huge. Optimer can expect to generate about $153 million in U.S. sales in 2015, according to analyst Eun Yang of Jefferies & Co.
So to get the biggest possible bang out of this new molecule, Optimer is thinking about not just treating “C.diff,” but preventing it. Like Pfizer did with fluconazole (Diflucan), Optimer sees a long-range future in which physicians will prescribe the product as part of a standard regimen as a preventive medicine for patients who are at high risk of getting C.diff and who are likely to face a lot of suffering and high-cost hospital interventions if they get the bug. The initial plan is to start with a clinical trial to prove the Optimer’s drug can help prevent that problematic result in patients undergoing bone-marrow transplants.
If this preventive strategy works, then Optimer’s new medicine could be used by up to 20,000 patients a year who undergo such transplants. Given that the drug is currently priced at $2,800 for a typical 10-day course, and it is likely to go up over time, so it could possibly add another $230 million to $380 million in annual sales by 2020, Lichtinger says.
“I came from Pfizer where this concept was applied to Diflucan, where years ago, it was the first major antifungal applied for prophylactic use,” Lichtinger says. “It’s still used today as a generic. I saw that drug go from a relatively small drug into a $1.6 billion drug as a result of this prophylactic approach.”
He was quick to add that he’s not forecasting Optimer’s drug will approach that rarefied sales figure, but he does add there is a wide variety of other patient groups that could benefit from getting preventive C.diff treatment, such as vulnerable patients undergoing heart or liver transplants, certain cancer patients, or those on ventilators in hospital intensive care units. “The opportunity is certainly even bigger than with the primary C.diff indication,” Lichtinger said during an interview earlier this month at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.
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