Bayer looks to bone up in oncology after slipping behind rivals

Bayer's David Weinreich

German pharma giant Bayer is playing catch-up in the field of cancer treatments, expanding its efforts in hopes of cutting in on the burgeoning oncology market.

Bayer has watched from the sidelines as revolutionary treatments that use the immune system to combat tumors have gone from the lab to the market, bringing in billions for Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck ($MRK) and others. Now the 152-year-old company is trying to join those ranks, more than tripling the number of cancer therapies in its pipeline over the past three years in hopes of launching new oncology products in the coming years.

"We want to be a major oncology player," Bayer oncology head David Weinreich told Bloomberg. The company has 17 cancer treatments in development, led by the Phase III lymphoma drug copanlisib and prostate cancer therapy ODM-201. And while its efforts in oncology are easily dwarfed by well-heeled rivals like Roche ($RHHBY), Bayer believes its pipeline can deliver three approvals by 2020 and a share of the immunotherapy market thereafter.

Bayer is a relative newcomer to the field, launching its first cancer drug, Nexavar, in 2005. Since then, the company has successfully developed just one cancer therapy, the prostate cancer drug Xofigo.

Bayer's deep dive into oncology comes amid a record investment in R&D. The company is spending about €4 billion ($4.4 billion) on research this year, a roughly 5% hike over the €3.6 billion ($4 billion) it committed in 2014. Last year, the pharma giant disclosed a three-year growth strategy that will see it spend €11.2 billion ($12.3 billion) on R&D through 2016, earmarking another €7.3 billion ($8. billion) for dealmaking over the same period.

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