UPDATED: Amgen and Watson strike $400M cancer biosimilars pact

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Amgen ($AMGN) and Watson Pharmaceuticals ($WPI) are joining forces to develop and market copycat versions of antibody drugs against cancer, the companies revealed Monday afternoon. The pact calls for Watson, a maker of generic drugs, to pump up to $400 million into the effort, and Amgen is taking the lead on testing, manufacturing and selling the biosimilars.

Amgen, the world's largest biotech company, and Watson aren't yet saying which specific anti-cancer antibodies are involved in the pact, but the companies' statement did make clear that none of Amgen's antibody treatments will be covered under the deal. The pact, however, doesn't keep Watson from pursuing development of biosimilar versions of Amgen products, which include biologics with more than $1 billion in annual revenue such as Enbrel, Epogen and Aranesp. (Amgen won a patent for Enbrel last month that could block generic competition to the TNF drug for an extra 17 years, until 2028.)

Watson is expected to get royalties and milestones from sales of biosimilars marketed under the deal. A company executive said during a conference call Monday that the biosimilars involved in the pact are expected to hit the European market before the U.S. market, where the availability of the drugs is lower than in Europe. The New York Times' Andrew Pollack speculated that Watson and Amgen could pursue development of copycat versions of Roche's cancer drugs such as Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan.

Knockoffs of expensive biotech drugs are expected to be a big business in the U.S. and other major healthcare markets as top-selling biologics lose patent exclusivity in the coming years. Even developers of original biologics are now getting in on the act. Biotech heavyweight Biogen Idec ($BIIB) sealed a $300 million biosimilars deal with a unit of Samsung that was announced early this month. Yet the FDA has yet to provide specific rules for biosimilars that will tell companies the clinical development requirements to bring the copycat biologics to market, presenting developers some unknowns as they aim to bring the treatments to market in the U.S., the NYT reported. 

Bob Bradway, Amgen's president and chief operating officer, who is expected to become the biotech giant's next CEO, stated: "Biosimilars provide an exciting long-term growth opportunity for Amgen. We have a dedicated team to leverage existing capabilities and capacity and drive the success of the collaboration."

- here's the release
- read the NYT's report
- see Xconomy's article

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