R&D chief Mikael Dolsten

Most improved – Pfizer

2012 R&D spending: $7.9 billion
2011 R&D spending: $9.1 billion
Change: Down 13%
As a percentage of sales: 13.3%
R&D chief: Mikael Dolsten

Just a few days ago Pfizer ($PFE) took a little known hepatitis C drug called filibuvir out with the trash. Once considered a potential advance, new drugs from Gilead ($GILD), AbbVie ($ABBV) and others had overtaken it. And these days at Pfizer, drugs that don't make the cut get an unceremonious burial.

Pfizer's R&D group ended 2012 close to where it set out to be about three years ago when it announced the biggest downsizing in drug R&D history. A spokesperson tells FierceBiotech that the company closed the year with a $7 billion burn rate. And with a projected $6.5 billion to $7 billion budget for 2013, you can attribute any new cuts--including some we've seen recently--to the kind of streamlining all the Big Pharma companies look for in an unceasing quest for greater efficiency.

Admittedly, Pfizer had plenty to cut after completing the big megamerger with Wyeth. But even so, Pfizer is now spending less on R&D than before the Wyeth merger. The company is also arguably better focused and certainly more productive than in the rich heyday, when Lipitor billions rolled in to finance some of the most ridiculous deals the industry has ever seen. (A pair of monumentally expensive forays on two longshot Alzheimer's drugs--Dimebon and bapineuzumab--that flunked out of expensive Phase III studies marks their high water stain of folly.)

There was a time not long ago when Pfizer was known as the best drug development partner in the industry. But contrary to the reasons usually cited for such distinctions--scientific expertise, commitment and so on--Pfizer was the belle of the biotech ball because the pharma giant always brought its fat checkbook to the bargaining table. Extra zeroes can win a lot of short-term friends.

Pfizer is better known now for spinning out assets it can no longer afford to pursue. And in place of failure, it racked up some significant gains in 2012. With 5 FDA approvals last year, Pfizer could claim the crown for the most regulatory wins. Two of those new drugs, Eliquis and Xeljanz, were likely first-in-class therapies. To be sure, some of the other successes won't make pharma history, but the change of pace was dramatic. And with newer drugs like Sutent, Lyrica and Prevnar delivering growing sales, Pfizer could make a case for an R&D turnaround as it's fighting to boost revenue in the face of disappearing Lipitor sales.

The recent accomplishments left Pfizer with a new focus on some unsung prospects in its late-stage pipeline, which includes a total of 17 programs. CEO Ian Read cited palbociclib (PD-332991) for advanced breast cancer, RN316 (a PCSK9 program for lowering LDL cholesterol), dacomitinib for advanced non-small cell lung cancer, inotuzumab for aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Xeljanz for psoriasis, and the rLP2086 vaccine for meningococcal B in adolescents and young adults as the company's new star lineup.

The PCSK9 drug has a high profile in the industry, a contender in a high-stakes race to safely and dramatically lower LDL. And recently there's been data to support Pfizer's contention that some of these other therapies are unknown gems. On the cancer side, palbociclib combined with Novartis' ($NVS) Femara wowed investigators last fall with Phase II data that demonstrated the combo stopped tumor progression of an incurable form of breast cancer for a remarkable 26 months. Andrew Baum at Citigroup noted that it had the potential to earn $5 billion a year.

Just last fall, Pfizer also struck a deal with SFJ Pharmaceuticals for a Phase III study of dacomitinib in Asia, one of two such pacts. In many ways that represents the new Pfizer R&D group: much more nimble, sharing risk, focused. The turnaround took a long time to manage, but Pfizer is now experiencing more success than failure.

For more:
Pfizer on track to chop R&D budget back to $6.5B-$7B range
Can a new Pfizer find success in its long-struggling R&D division?
Pfizer faces delay on tofacitinib as new data adds blockbuster luster
Pfizer nears animal health IPO as cost-cutting boosts profits
Pfizer R&D chief talks up chances for late-stage Alzheimer's drug


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