AstraZeneca toasts to independent living with big plans for its Pfizer-free future

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot

Rounding out year two of CEO Pascal Soriot's rescue mission at AstraZeneca ($AZN), the U.K. drugmaker believes it has the pipeline assets to fuel double-digit submissions and approvals by 2017, reaffirming its promise to pump up sales by 75% as former suitor Pfizer ($PFE) creeps back into the frame.

At its analyst day Tuesday, AstraZeneca spelled out its case for staying the course, pointing to a pipeline of 14 Phase III drugs that will make for 8 to 10 approvals over the next two years. Leading the way is the company's resurgent oncology unit, whose three leading medicines have peak sales potential north of $12 billion, management has said.

Cancer treatments represent AstraZeneca's planned 6th pillar of growth, Soriot said, joining the heart drug Brilinta, diabetes drugs, respiratory therapies, emerging markets and Japan in the company's plot to deliver annual revenue above $45 billion by 2023. And things are moving quickly: AstraZeneca moved up the planned filing date for AZD9291, a lung cancer treatment tabbed to bring in $3 billion at its peak, to the second quarter of next year. Olaparib, a cancer therapy the company believes has $2 billion in annual potential, is up for global approvals in early 2015, while MEDI4736, a PD-L1 therapy the company said can top out at $6.5 billion a year, is slated to enter Phase III around the same time.

Looming over all that optimism is Pfizer, whose failed $118 billion overture earlier this year led AstraZeneca to take the uncommon tack of assigning dollar values to in-development assets in the first place. Under the U.K.'s takeover code, Pfizer's 6-month lock-out period expires on Nov. 26, freeing the U.S. giant to make a second approach if it so chooses.

Neil Woodford

Neil Woodford, whose Woodford Investment Management is among AstraZeneca's largest shareholders, figures there's a 50-50 chance Pfizer will return to the table with another--presumably sweetened--offer. But he, like management, believes the company's brightest future is a solitary one, writing that "AstraZeneca's promising pipeline stands a much better chance of fulfilling its potential if it remains independent rather than in the hands of a potential acquirer."

And a few things have swung in AstraZeneca's favor since Pfizer's last offensive collapsed in the spring. For one, the U.S. Treasury has tightened regulations on stateside companies looking for overseas buys that would lower their tax bills, a move that convinced AbbVie ($ABBV) to abandon its planned $55 billion acquisition of Ireland's Shire ($SHPG).

Furthermore, some analysts point to Pfizer's recent behavior as a sign that it has perhaps moved on. Much of AstraZeneca's initial allure stemmed from the aforementioned oncology pipeline, as Pfizer has long been on the outside looking in on Big Pharma's race to develop new immunotherapies for cancer. On Monday, however, the company made a sweeping effort to change that, signing a deal worth nearly $3 billion--including a record $850 million up front--that will cut it in on Merck KGaA's immuno-oncology program. The size and shape of that agreement suggest Pfizer may be preparing for a future without the likes of MEDI4736.

- read AstraZeneca's statement
- here's Woodford's post