In search for success, R&D teams are overcrowding small drug franchises

In biomedical research, imitation is now the sincerest form of competition. If heart drugs prove too expensive and too risky to develop, R&D teams and the corporations that fund them steer away. If targeted cancer drugs are winning approvals and the science is well understood, you can expect a host of copycat efforts. And the trend is starting to alarm some analysts who see too many biopharma companies trying to compete for a piece of the same small therapeutic franchises.

Take ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for a fragment of that market. Pfizer ($PFE) pioneered Xalkori for ALK-positive NSCLC in 2011. Now Roche ($RHHBY) and Novartis ($NVS) are trying to muscle in with their own drugs, RG7853 and LDK378. And Reuters counts 6 more drugs that are in the pipeline with the same target.

Signs of overcrowding--particularly in the cancer R&D field--have begun to cause analysts at Barclays to fret about what will happen once a variety of drugs start competing for the same healthcare buck.

"Whilst biopharma has enjoyed significant commercial success in areas such as oncology over the past decade, pipelines are now increasingly over-concentrated against many targets diminishing future returns for the industry overall," Barclays analysts said, according to a trend story in Reuters.

Reuters' Caroline Copley hit on a growing meme in the R&D community. There are clear signs that drug R&D productivity over the last four years has declined, delivering products that are less and less likely to carve out as many dollars as had been projected when they were in development. Copley incorrectly asserts that 2013 approvals were at a "healthy" level--with new approvals dropping to 27 from 39 in 2012, the level of approvals was anything but healthy. But if you combine a meager level of approvals with a trend toward overcrowding the most promising drug targets, you have an even uglier picture for the R&D field to contemplate.

Reuters goes as far as to say that the same problem is now even apparent in the immunotherapy field, with too many companies chasing PD-1 and PD-L1. With three companies in hot pursuit of the first approval, that may be stretching the numbers a bit. But if everybody else jumps in, which is quite likely, then you can expect many more such stories along the same line.

- here's the feature from Reuters

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