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Focus on severe diseases helps to steady UCB's results

Biopharma says austerity-hit Europe still has means to pay for severe healthcare issues

UCB has said a focus on severe diseases helped it avoid some of the issues facing larger pharma companies as it posted steady results.

The Belgian-based biopharma's CEO Roch Doliveux said that by committing to therapy areas such as epilepsy and immunology, it was less affected by European austerity measures.

“That was by design,” said Doliveux. “Eight years ago when we designed the strategy for the company I could not predict the economic crisis of 2008. But what I could predict was the aging population and that governments would have to make choices, which is happening now with the economic crisis.

“Making choices means that right in the middle of the Greek crisis, we were able to get a price for Vimpat for refractory epilepsy at a significant premium versus the highest price other antiepileptic. And why is that? We save lives.

“We still have the means in Europe for many years to come to pay for severe healthcare issues, and that's what we're addressing.”

Doliveux also commented on the increasing difficulty of countries like Greece to pay its pharma bills, and revealed that, influenced by similar problems in Spain in the 1970s, UCB took out insurance against this happening again several years ago.

The company's revenue grew one per cent last year to €3.25bn, as it faced patent losses and a decrease in royalties.

It was buoyed by the growth of epilepsy drug Vimpat (lacosamide), as well as Neupro (rotigotine) for Parkinson's disease and restless legs syndrome, and Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) treatment Cimzia (certolizumab pegol).

Vimpat's sales were up 65 per cent for the year, while Neupro grew 16 per cent and Cimzia grew 58 per cent, with the three brands bringing in combined sales of €625m.

Generic competition for the company's top-selling product, epilepsy monotherapy Keppra, saw the drug's US sales fall 18 per cent, while sales of its antihistamine Xyzal (levocetirizine) also suffered due to patent expiration.

Keppra fared better in Europe, with revenues growing by eight per cent thanks to such measures as UCB launching its own authorised generic in Germany.

“Erosion is happening” Doliveux noted, and Keppra's European revenues are expected to slip further during 2012, although growth for the drug in Asia should help off-set this.

Academia important for UK R&D
In the wake of cutbacks by Pfizer, Novartis and AstraZeneca, Doliveux, who was speaking at a media briefing in London, also commented on UCB's commitment to UK R&D. 

“I know how tough it is and I respect the decisions of my colleagues at the head of these companies have to make,” he said. “But we should not mix that with whether or not UK discovery capability is strong or not.”

At the heart of that capability is the research and reputation of the UK's academic institutions, according to Doliveux.

“It's not by accident that if you look at leading biotechs – they are based around UCSF and around Boston. So the importance of that academia, I'm convinced that the robustness of Oxford and Cambridge means the opportunities are there.”

Backing the thinking behind recently announced innovation plans from Eli Lilly, Doliveux also suggested that collaborating with academic institutions was key to breakthroughs in research for industry.

“There is something that academia has structurally that industry will never have. Every year you have new students – you have this fresh look. There is no company that can ever have that.”

Doliveux was less keen on UK plans to introduce value-based pricing for drug reimbursement in the NHS in 2014, however, saying he had concerns it would not reward R&D as well as the current pharmaceutical price regulation scheme (PPRS) system.

“I know PPRS – it's a very robust system that a lot of countries have tried to copy, and PPRS works well.”

“I don't know what's going to come – it's still very theoretical. I hope that as the biggest non-British R&D investor in the UK we are involved in these discussions.”

5th March 2012

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