Analysts tap the next big thing in biopharma R&D

Just a year or two ago, analysts and investors were in a frenzy over the frantic race to develop a new set of hepatitis C drugs that promised to change the standard of care. Now, as the leaders in that race approach the first round of likely marketing approvals, a new R&D competition has grabbed analysts' feverish attention as the next big thing in biopharma. And the leading players in this field may once again be betting on a mega-blockbuster payoff.

Immunotherapy cancer drugs, which have been gaining steam among a group of top companies for several years now, have analysts' hearts beating faster over the prospect of huge returns.    

"We believe this market will generate sales of up to $35 billion (a year) over the next 10 years and be used in some way in the management of up to 60 percent of all cancers," Citi analyst Andrew Baum said today, according to a Reuters report.

In part, the intensity of this spotlight is being amped up in the lead-up to the big ASCO meeting at the end of this month. Every ASCO session generates a lot of heat, bordering on hype. But this time around developers are using completely different timelines on when these drugs could get to the marketplace. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is already working on a full slate of Phase III trials nivolumab, which has been edging ahead of contenders from Merck ($MRK) and Roche ($RHHBY) with very promising results from a study looking at the impact of nivolumab combined with Yervoy.

Significantly, the FDA is committing the agency to seeing these drugs get the fastest review possible. Merck's lambrolizumab won the agency's "breakthrough" drug designation, which could theoretically help the company take some shortcuts in the clinical development process. With the agency urging them on, a number of top developers believe that the traditional 10-year clinical odyssey can be cut down to just 3 to 5 years, a radical change that could redefine development times for the entire industry. And that's helped generate a huge appetite for oncology programs in the industry.

Even if analysts are wrong and the big, big numbers turn out to be a mirage--not the first time that would have happened--a reduced forecast would still fall into the blockbuster category, which is still big enough to whet the appetite of all the big players.

- here's the Reuters story

Special Reports: Top 10 Late-Stage Cancer Drugs – 2012 | Hep C pill race report 2012: Gilead, others rush toward pharma gold