- Swiss pharma Roche AG now expects stronger sales growth in 2018, raising its guidance for the year as its new multiple sclerosis medicine Ocrevus has quickly emerged as a competitive force in the U.S.
- Sales of Ocrevus surged in the first quarter to total 479 million Swiss francs (roughly $485 million), making the drug's launch one of the best ever in the multiple sclerosis market, Roche said on Thursday. All told, Roche's 10 newest drugs accounted for 80% of sales growth for the period.
- Optimism over the potential of drugs like Ocrevus was tempered, however, by slumping sales of Roche's cancer biologic Rituxan in Europe. Analysts expected biosimilar competition would begin to bite, but the 44% year-over-year decline for Rituxan seen in the first quarter still stood out.
More than some of its peers, Roche is vulnerable to the impact of biosimilar competition. While uptake of the copycat biologics remains slow in the U.S., the Swiss pharma faces quickening adoption of biosimilar versions to its top-selling drugs in Europe.
Several biosimilars to Rituxan (rituximab, marketed as Mabthera in Europe) are currently available in Europe, making the branded drug's declines expected. Still, the rapid collapse of sales heightens worries about the degree to which biosimilars will erode Roche's other franchises.
A copy of Roche's breast cancer med Herceptin (trastuzumab) also recently won approval in Europe and could start to impact sales this year.
Roche executives, though, remain confident in their ability to grow through biosimilar competition. "We feel comfortable on a global basis to offset the effect [of biosimilars]," said Daniel O'Day, CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals, on an April 26 earnings call.
That confidence is fueled by the increasingly strong performance from new drug launches, Ocrevus in particular.
When combined, Roche expects sales of its 10 most recently approved drugs to total 8 billion Swiss francs for the year and account for nearly all of its growth.
After its first three full quarters of sales, Ocrevus had already seized a 7% market share in the highly competitive MS market in the U.S.
Notably, 60% of patients treated with Ocrevus have relapsing forms (RMS) of the disease, an indication Roche's drug shares with rivals — indicating physicians are willing to switch patients from other meds to Ocrevus. Overall, Roche said 70% of Ocrevus' sales in RMS stem from switches.
More upside remains: Ocrevus only recently won approval in Europe and has just begun to launch in markets there. "The EU is really just getting out the door," O'Day said.
Elsewhere, Roche is betting its cancer immunotherapy Tecentriq (atezolizumab) and its closely watched hemophilia drug Hemlibra (emicizumab) will become blockbusters in their own right.
Tecentriq will face an uphill battle in wresting market share from Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Opdivo (nivolumab) and Merck & Co.'s Keytruda (pembrolizumab). A full slate of clinical trials, including the positive IMpower-150 study, could give the PD-L1 inhibitor a boost in lung cancer this year, though.
So far, Hemlibra is only approved in a small subset of hemophilia patients who have developed resistance to existing medicines. Roche plans to file for approval in the broader non-inhibitor hemophilia market later this year, which will be a key test of how competitive Hemlibra could become.