EP Vantage interview – J&J draws a bead on oncology targets

Johnson & Johnson is no Roche. It ranks well behind the Swiss group in the league table of oncology and immunomodulator companies, sitting at fifth in market share today, and will remain so in 2018. Yet it has locked up one of the most promising cancer projects in development today in ibrutinib and hopes that success from this kinase inhibitor will breed success.

Speaking to EP Vantage at the Asco cancer meeting, Peter Lebowitz, global oncology head for J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals division, says the New Jersey pharma giant is on the hunt for “transformational” candidates to help shift away from a small stable of chemotherapy and hormonal agents. “In terms of what rank we are or end up being, I worry less about,” Dr Lebowitz says. “What I worry the most about is making transformational drugs. Not drugs that have some incremental benefit, but going after the things that have a large benefit. I think if you do that and you continue to invest in it that gets you to a place with the real leaders in oncology.”

Deal or no deal

Not that J&J is necessarily without reason to boast. Zytiga, the hormonal agent brought into its fold with the $970m buyout of Cougar Biotechnology, will be the best-selling prostate cancer drug this year at $1.46bn in sales, according to EvaluatePharma forecasts. While this lead will be overcome by Astellas Pharma’s Xtandi, Zytiga will remain a significant factor in advanced prostate cancer care.

As a drug that suppresses testosterone, Zytiga is a not particularly innovative product; its progress came thanks to an ability to suppress testosterone produced by the adrenal glands as well as the testes (Prostate cancer results power Cougar Biotech's shares, November 28, 2007).

The blood cancer drug Velcade is the group’s biggest seller in oncology, with a forecast $1.54bn in sales from its partnership with Takeda this year. It figures fairly significantly in the multiple myeloma landscape as the second-biggest seller, although it will be eclipsed in its own therapy category of proteasome inhibitor by Onyx Pharmaceuticals’ Kyprolis in 2018.

Even in the context of J&J, Velcade is not as important as the very old over-the-counter pain reliever Tylenol, forecast to sell $1.64bn this year.

Hence the desire to bring in some new candidates. Ibrutinib is the most advanced Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (Btk) inhibitor and will play in the same haematological cancer space as Velcade, with phase III results in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and small lymphocytic lymphoma due early next year from J&J and its partner Pharmacyclics (J&J pays handsomely for first-in-class blood cancer drug, December 9, 2011).

To Dr Lebowitz, executing of the ibrutinib collaboration is essential to J&J's oncology strategy. “Janssen made the deal for ibrutinib, and you can imagine that there were a lot of other people interested,” he says. “We can show that we are a preferred partner that we drove value from that deal, and that we continue to be a really strong partner with Pharmacyclics.”

There is no doubt that deal has created value for California-based Pharmacyclics. Since signing that deal in December 2011, shares have quintupled in value. This alone might be a satisfactory outcome for many of Pharmacyclics’ fellow developers.

Going early

As for taking on new candidates, Dr Lebowitz says Janssen continues to have a strong interest in haematological cancers and is willing to take a chance on early-stage assets. “None of our acquisitions were bolt-on because they required significant investment,” he says.

Case in point is its collaboration with Genmab. On the one hand, therefore, J&J has a product-specific deal on daratumumab, a multiple myeloma antibody (Genmab scores big J&J deal for myeloma antibody, August 30, 2012). On the other, it has a broader preclinical deal to generate up to 10 programmes from Genmab’s DuoBody platform, which produces “bispecific” antibodies that can bind to two epitopes on their targets, improving their specificity and potentially their efficacy.

It is admittedly a tricky time to be a buyer in the overheated biotech market – the Nasdaq biotechnology index now stands at 28% above its 2000 peak. But Dr Lebowitz says he believes J&J’s oncology division has organised itself to prevent overpaying.

“The difference between paying too much and bringing in a deal that drives value for both companies is in really understanding the area, understanding the disease all the way through to commercialisation,” he says. “That’s why we’ve built these disease areas where we have scientists who get the science; clinicians who understand the clinical pieces of it; and we have commercial that really can tell you what’s going to happen with a given profile of a drug. That helps you to make deals that drive value - I really mean for both parties.”

To contact the writer of this story email Jonathan Gardner in London at [email protected] or follow @JonEPVantage on Twitter

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