Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Amgen's Denosumab: NOW How Much Would You Pay?

Monty Hall is back, because it sounds like it may be now or never to secure a partnership with Amgen for one of the most eagerly awaited Phase III projects in the industry—the post-menopausal osteoporosis treatment denosumab.

Recall that Amgen is considering partnering the project, a once-unthinkable option but now an oh-so poignant sign of the times for an industry struggling to reinvent itself. Recall also that we offered you complimentary access to the profile of denosumab from Elsevier’s Inteleos database to help you decide how much to pay for a share of this potentially huge market opportunity—and to shoulder some of the risk that denosumab will instead become another spectacular Big Pharma flameout.

The latest development: Amgen has announced positive Phase III results in a big osteoporosis trial, involving about 8,000 patients studied for three years. The company certainly isn’t underplaying the results. R&D chief Roger Perlmutter told The New York Times that the trial “exceeded my expectations”--which seems hard to do, given that denosumab is essentially a bet-the-company project for Amgen at this point.

During Amgen's quarterly call July 28, Perlmutter explained his ebulliance. “The fact that we saw statistically significant reductions across all primary and secondary endpoints was really very impressive. I will also say that when you look at the safety database, you have nearly 24,000 patient years of experience here, so it is far greater than anything else that we had to look at. The fact that the safety profile is so balanced as compared to placebo was extremely encouraging.”

Now, we might take those comments with a grain of salt, since all indications are that Amgen is still actively soliciting interest in partners for the drug. As CEO Kevin Sharer noted during the call, the positive study “certainly doesn’t preclude the necessary work we will do to see what our options are.”

Amgen, of course, wants to raise the price of any deal: “This data certainly makes us more confident in our ability to launch ourselves,” Sharer declared.

And Amgen certainly faces other pressures. The company is deep into cost-cutting mode as it adjusts to the new, sharply reduced realities of its flagship EPO franchise. The last thing it wants to do is embark on aggressive new spending to build a massive primary care sales presence to support denosumab.

Sharer, understandably, declined to provide any estimates on how much Amgen would have to spend to support a go-it-alone launch—no sense showing all your cards, is there?

"Our view is that we've got really strong data here," he said. "We're going to have to take this data, look at it carefully, see what physicians think. But I just want to assure our shareholders that we're going to make a full and complete analysis and surface the right set of options, and I'm confident we'll pick the right one.”

Sharer also suggested that an internal launch might not be as expensive as the conventional Big Pharma model would suggest. "We see this medicine with its high science component as being something that will take the kind of high science and medicine approach that we've historically taken. So we do not see this as a normal general practitioner kind of sales product that you just throw in the bag."

On the other hand, Sharer clearly has a bit of a one-track mind when it comes to thinking about the importance of denosumab to Amgen. Asked to comment on Amgen's overall approach to infrastructure-building, and whether there might be any opportunities in the current climate of consolidation, Sharer replied succintly. "I can't imagine buying a company to acquire a sales force. That' s inconceivable."

So I guess those Genentech sales reps are going to have to look elsewhere....

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