In Praise of Independence: Q&A with Roche's Dan Zabrowski - Pharmaceutical Executive


In Praise of Independence: Q&A with Roche's Dan Zabrowski
Roche has always gone its own way: investing in biologics, championing personalized medicine, and checking its ego at the door when doing deals. Now that the rest of Big Pharma has caught on, can a new generation of leaders keep the Swiss giant ahead of its time?

Pharmaceutical Executive

Roche inked a deal with Alnylam of Cambridge, MA, less than a week after Zabrowski took charge of pharma partnering. All the rage, RNA interference is a process of gene silencing that could potentially lead to breakthrough drugs and diagnostics for a vast range of diseases. Roche's Alnylam gamble could add up to $1 billion, a measure of Zabrowski's belief. "We see RNAi as having the same potential as monoclonal antibodies," he says. "It could transform the way medicine is practiced in 2020. To be a part of that potential is one of the things that makes my job great."


Oncology is Roche's cash cow; the company commands 30 percent of the global market. According to Decision Resources analyst Mohamed Muhsin, the Swiss firm can coast in first place for another decade just by extending applications. He estimates that in 2013, Avastin sales will peak at $6 billion, Herceptin sales at $5 billion, and Rituxan sales at $5.5 billion; Taxeda, a kinase inhibitor, like Novartis' first-in-class Gleevec, will hit $1.5 billion. But beyond that, Muhsin says, "Roche's oncology pipeline is not what you would expect."

Says Zabrowski says: "Our licensing efforts over the next three to five years will be partly driven by the need to find the next successful cancer treatment." At the same time, his team will be searching for deals to boost Roche's portfolio, which is expanding in very strategic ways.

Its autoimmue pipeline has three potential blockbusters, including the much-anticipated Actemra, a Phase III first-in-class IL-6 inhibitor for arthritis; R-3421, a novel PNP inhibitor in Phase II; and Rituxan, which reported spectacular results in February in a Phase II trial against multiple sclerosis.

But it's in the cardiovascular/metabolics group that Roche is really raising the stakes. For the type 2 diabetes market, it has R-1579, a DPP-4 inhibitor to compete with Merck's Januvia and Novartis' beleagured Galvus, and R-1439 (aleglitizar), a novel PPAR co-agonist kin to the glitazones like Glaxo's Avandia, which took a dive after news of heart risk surfaced last year. A third NME for type 2 diabetes, R-1583, a GLP 1 analogue, may also be tested for weight loss. As a leader in diabetes diagnostics, having three different classes of treatments on offer could make Roche the 800-pound gorilla in this massive market.

Meanwhile, the firm is racing to enroll 15,000 patients in a global Phase III trial of R-1658, its CETP inhibitor, in hopes of beating rival Merck's own Phase III candidate. Whether either compound can escape the fate of Pfizer's torcetrapib, a $1 billion Phase III disaster, will be eagerly followed.

"We want to become more focused in regards to the targets that are high-interest to our disease biology leadership teams," he says, "and be extremely determined to go out and get those targets in a highly competitive environment."


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