Ocrevus keeps Roche growing as other pharmas falter
- While a number of leading drugmakers reckon with competitive challenges and pricing pressures, Swiss pharma Roche touted 2018 as a particularly strong year of growth — and predicts a similar story to unfold in 2019, company executives said Thursday.
- The Swiss pharma isn't immune from those industry-wide challenges, as two of its top cancer drugs began to feel the effect of biosimilar competition last year. Yet company sales were up 7% in 2018 compared to the previous year. Roche's leaders forecast sales growth in the low-to-mid-single digits for 2019.
- New drugs were more than able to make up for aging products' slower sales. The multiple sclerosis therapy Ocrevus posted roughly $2.4 billion in worldwide sales in 2018, its first full year on market. Rapid sales growth has made the drug the most successful product launch in Roche's history, the company said.
Fresh financials from Roche illustrate the balancing act drugmakers face in replacing older, top-selling products with newer therapies.
From 2017 to 2018, new medicines contributed about $3.2 billion to Roche's revenue, while competition to Rituxan (rituximab) and Herceptin (trastuzumab) in Europe and Japan ate away roughly $1.2 billion.
While Roche has succeeded in offsetting sales erosion overall, geographical sales splits show diverging fortunes for the company.
In the U.S., where Rituxan and Herceptin remain protected from biosimilar rivals, sales grew by $2.8 billion, or 14%. Across the Atlantic in Europe, however, sales fell 7% as copycat competition dragged sales of each drug down by 47% and 16%, respectively, last year.
Ocrevus (ocrelizumab), a multiple sclerosis therapy approved in early 2017, has been at the center of Roche's growth.
Sales of the drug totaled roughly $2.4 billion last year and Bill Anderson, head of Roche Pharmaceuticals, said he expects further gains in 2019. Uptake has stemmed from patients with both primary progressive and relapsing forms of the disease.
The Roche exec said Ocrevus now accounts for 39% of drug switches and new starts in relapsing MS, with the drug's 13 other rivals making up the other 61%. Relapsing MS is the more common form of the central nervous system condition.
Executives hope to add to Roche's portfolio of new therapies, as well, expecting to launch two medicines this year — entrectinib in non-small cell lung cancer and polatuzumab vedotin in a type of lymphoma — after rolling out the freshly approved Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) for influenza.
Additionally, the company plans this year to submit for approval risdiplam in spinal muscular atrophy and satralizumab for a rare, autoimmune disease called NMOSD.
Its pipeline did take a hit this week, however, as Roche disclosed it would discontinue two Phase 3 trials of its Alzheimer's disease therapy crenezumab.
Roche's bullish forecast for 2019 comes as some other large pharmas and biotechs have struggled to maintain a positive outlook in the face of expiring exclusivity on top-selling drugs.
Roche shares were up more than 2% in morning trading on U.S. over-the-counter markets Thursday.
Note: This article has been updated to clarify when Roche's flu drug Xofluza launched. The drug was approved last October and subsequently launched in the U.S.
- Roche Earnings presentation