Pfizer targets miniblockbuster prospects as Lipitor patent expires

Pfizer ($PFE) has been gearing up for the expiration of Lipitor's patent for years, and with the big day finally upon us, analysts and industry watchers are weighing in on the R&D course that the drug giant has plotted to survive the post-Lipitor era. With Lipitor sales due to slide rapidly because of generics competition, Pfizer has focused on a host of new treatments and on making deep cuts in its R&D spending.

Pfizer is forging ahead with a slimmer R&D group and a pipeline that features so-called miniblockbusters and specialty drugs that could command top dollar. Two of the company's best pipeline prospects are the rheumatoid arthritis pill called tofacitinib and the blood thinner Eliquis, both of which are expected to generate more than $1 billion in sales if approved. And Sanford C. Bernstein analyst told Bloomberg that the company aims to bring in $4 billion from those two drugs as well as the recently approved Xalkori and Prevnar by 2014.

Clearly, there's no one drug in the company's pipeline that is expected to replace Lipitor, and health payers are demanding that new drugs provide better results to patients than previous products. Pfizer and its industry rivals are therefore forced to seek out niche areas of medical need in which new drugs can make a big impact--and, believe it or not, provide innovative therapies. Pfizer has Xalkori as a poster child for personalized treatments with high value to specific patients, as the drug extends survival for patients with non-small cell lung cancer, but only for the 3%-5% of patients whose tumors are ALK-positive.

At the same time, there are still big markets to pursue. Some of the big ones include Alzheimer's disease, for which there is a lack of good treatments, and the rapidly growing market for drugs against Hepatitis C virus. However, the shelf lives of new blockbusters might be shorter than previous big-sellers like Lipitor, as multiple drugs against the same targets compete and beat out others for market share. "We won't see drugs with the longevity of Lipitor," Ken Kaitin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, told Nature News. "We'll see drugs that sporadically reach very high levels of revenue, and then come down."

This could become the case with the new crop of drugs for hepatitis C, including Vertex Pharmaceutical's ($VRTX) recently approved drug Incivek, which face potential competition from interferon-free treatments with fewer side effects in just a few years. This puts a lot of pressure on R&D groups to stay productive, and should make for an exciting decade in the biopharma industry.

- read Bloomberg's article
- check out the Nature News piece

Special Report: Tofacitinib - 15 top blockbuster contenders