If you can't buy a biopharmaceutical company, you might as well become one. UCB Pharma last week announced that it will trim 17 percent of its work force—about 2,000 employees—in order to reestablish the company as specialty drug firm.
UCB's restructuring plan, dubbed "SHAPE," will allow the Belgian-based company to concentrate on central nervous system and immunology treatments—areas it has already been dabbling in. The company plans to reallocate $300 million over the next three years for centers of excellence that will each focus on a target treatment.
On Wednesday, UCB spokesperson Antje Witte told Pharm Exec that this plan is not a cost-cutting strategy, but a restructuring to compensate for two blockbuster drugs going off-patent—the allergy drug Zyrtec (cetirizine) and the epilepsy treatment Keppra (levetiracetam).
"We are a small- to mid-size company, and we think the best recipe is to focus on our strong expertise in epilepsy and immunology," Witte said.
Up until now, UCB was known for its primary care portfolio, including a strong allergy franchise, but it no longer has any PC drugs in the pipeline. "Today, we are 50 percent a primary company, and 50 percent a specialty company," Witte said. "If you look to the future, the feed from the pipeline is 100 percent specialty. Now is the right time to turn the switch and jump from one strategy to another." Key steps in repositioning the company include the purchase of the British biotech Celltech in 2004, and the sale of its films business the same year.
UCB said that it won't stop providing support for the primary care drugs it currently sells in the US, but will be shifting R&D to the specialty market. "We are committed to patients and our drugs, but if there's always an end to the life of a drug—it's called patent expiration," Witte said.
When asked if the company is adjusting its strategy to become a more appealing purchase for a Big Pharma, Witte said that UCB is interested in staying independent and acquiring smaller biotech companies to expand its portfolio. In recent years, UCB purchased more than 80 percent of Schwarz Pharma, acquiring a wealth of Parkinson's treatments.
"If you are a small company, you have to focus on the right areas where you can change something," Witte said. "Neurology is a huge area with a lot of diseases that are either not treated or not satisfactorily treated, so there is still unmet need. If you invest in these areas, you can really change the lives of many patients."
UCB plans to hire about 400 people worldwide, and reallocate 300 jobs to build its research hubs to work on different treatments, such as its CNS development center in North Carolina. The company expects to implement the entire SHAPE initiative by 2010.