Novartis girds to protect Gleevec-led franchise as new cancer rivals advance

Novartis ($NVS) is laying out plans to defend its blockbuster position in the leukemia field as its pioneering kinase inhibitor Gleevec nears generic status. And as Ariad ($ARIA), Pfizer ($PFE) and others make strides with their rival antileukemia compounds, Novartis aims to show how its newer therapy Tasigna helps more patients beat their cancer and stop taking the drug than Gleevec does.

As Bloomberg reports, the Swiss drug giant has a ton at stake in convincing the cancer community of the benefits of its newer drug over the older one; Gleevec, which generated more than $4 billion in sales last year, is expected to go off patent in 2014 and see sales of the drug slide. And a host of rival therapies threaten to eat into Novartis's dominant position in the $6 billion market for leukemia drugs.

Pharma companies big and small want to muscle in on Novartis's position with newer or as of now experimental therapies, and many developers would replicate Novartis's success in winning a string of approvals for Gleevec for various forms of cancer over the past 11 years. Cambridge, MA-based Ariad Pharmaceuticals, for instance, could gain FDA approval of its closely watched compound ponatinib in early 2013 as a second-line therapy for certain types of leukemia and is trialing the drug as a first-line treatment and studying its use for other blood and solid tumors.

A number of leukemia contenders have already hit the market. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) sells the drug Sprycel, and Pfizer notched an FDA approval of its new drug Bosulif in September for second-line treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia patients with Philadelphia chromosome-positive disease.

Ariad's drug, if approved, and Pfizer's treatment are expected to bite off hundreds of millions of dollars in market share for leukemia treatments in the coming years. Novartis won't be able to report results from its study comparing the rates of patients who discontinue therapy on its kinase inhibitors after beating back the disease until 2017, Bloomberg reported. And rivals are wasting no time in touting the benefits of their newer meds.

"Novartis's strategy is to portray Tasigna as the best treatment on the market, so good that there will be talk about it being a cure," Andrew Weiss, an analyst with Bank Vontobel AG in Zurich, told the news service.  

- check out Bloomberg's article

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