Johnson & Johnson lays out its battle plan

Johnson & Johnson’s pharma engine is faltering, and it needs more fuel. But it is unclear whether its list of potential new blockbusters will give it the boost it needs.

Among the 11 projects highlighted – plus ponesimod, which it will gain when it closes the acquisition of Actelion – many are still in relatively early stages of development. It looks likely that J&J will still be heavily reliant on its marketed blockbusters and growth coming from the Actelion deal for a while longer, but at least here it is on firmer ground (see tables below).

J&J’s first quarter disappointed and growth is expected to slow to low-single digits this year as it faces greater impact from biosimilar Remicade as well as pricing pressure for the likes of Xarelto and Invokana. 

But many projects on the expected blockbuster list, which J&J presented yesterday at its pharmaceutical business review day, are not a dead cert by any means. The company is taking a chance in some risky areas, with bets in depression and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), both of which have proven tricky for drug development.

Another notable entry is the Parp inhibitor niraparib, which J&J licensed from Tesaro in prostate cancer last year – it is already approved as Zejula in ovarian cancer. However, J&J is not the only one looking at prostate cancer with this  mechanism. Astrazeneca is ahead in this indication with Lynparza, which it is evaluating in the phase III Profound trial.

Niraparib is just one example of how much J&J depends on external innovation: only four of the 12 projects listed below were developed internally.

J&J’s potential pipeline blockbusters
Project Indication Mechanism Filing year 2022e sales ($m) Source
Guselkumab Psoriasis Anti-IL-23 MAb 2016 1,596 Internal
Sirukumab Rheumatoid arthritis Anti-IL-6 MAb 2016 1,020 Internal
Phase III
Apalutamide Pre-metastatic prostate cancer Anti-androgen 2017 1,424 University of California
Esketamine Treatment-resistant depression NMDA receptor antagonist 2018 436 Internal
Ponesimod Multiple sclerosis S1P agonist 2020 111 Actelion
Phase II
Erdafitinib Solid tumours FGFR inhibitor 2018 83 Astex Therapeutics
Niraparib Prostate cancer Parp inhibitor 2018 76 Tesaro
Talacotuzumab Acute myeloid leukaemia Anti-IL-3/CD123 MAb 2018 - CSL
Imetelstat Myelofibrosis/myelodysplastic syndrome Telomerase inhibitor 2019 218 Geron
Pimodivir Influenza A PB2 inhibitor 2020 18 Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Lumicitabine /JNJ-1575 RSV infection Nucleoside analogue 2020 19 Alios BioPharma
JNJ-7922 Major depressive disorder/insomnia Orexin 2 receptor antagonist 2021 6 Internal
Source: EvaluatePharma.

One of these, the multiple sclerosis candidate ponesimod originates from Actelion, which J&J agreed to buy in January for $30bn (J&J sets benchmark with massive Actelion price, January 26, 2017). 

The deal looks pricey, but J&J is anticipating accelerating growth for Actelion’s two top products, Uptravi and Opsumit, which it highlighted yesterday as potential blockbusters alongside various other marketed products.

This list of blockbusters and mega-blockbusters – drugs bringing in over $4bn per year – does not contain any surprises. In fact, J&J is fairly conservative with its predictions compared with sellside consensus forecasts.

J&J’s marketed blockbusters
Product J&J peak forecast Peak sales per EvaluatePharma ($bn) EvaluatePharma 2022 forecast ($bn)
Darzalex >$4bn 9.4 5.8
Imbruvica >$4bn 8.6* 7.4*
Xarelto >$4bn 8.2* 8.2*
Stelara >$4bn 5.0 5.0
Remicade >$1bn 8.2 3.7*
Invokana >$1bn 3.8* 3.2*
Simponi >$1bn 3.6 3.5
Zytiga >$1bn 2.3 1.0
Prezista >$1bn 1.9* 1.0*
Uptravi >$1bn 2.1 2.1
Opsumit >$1bn 1.8 1.8
*Includes partner sales; Source: EvaluatePharma.

But the fact that analysts have already taken these big guns fully into account just heaps more pressure on J&J’s pipeline to deliver.

Expectations are already high for guselkumab – now with the trade name Tremfya – and sirukumab, which are expected to be approved this year.

But timelines for other projects seem to be slipping, with a potential delay in store for the Zytiga follow-up apalutamide. Data from the phase III Spartan trial had been due earlier this year, but it now has a primary completion date of June and, being an event-driven study, this could be pushed back further. Filing might be put off until 2018, Wells Fargo analysts noted.

Even later-stage projects are not immune from hiccups. With J&J is pinning its hopes on many earlier-stage candidates, some in problematic diseases, expect at least a few of these to fall by the wayside.

Project Trial ID Primary completion
Lynparza Profound NCT02987543 Jan 2020
Niraparib Galahad NCT02854436 Oct 2019
Apalutamide Spartan NCT01946204 June 2017

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that imetelstat is in phase II.

To contact the writer of this story email Madeleine Armstrong or Amy Brown in London at [email protected] or follow @ByMadeleineA or @ByAmyBrown on Twitter

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