Novartis strikes again: New drug shows blockbuster potential

Only yesterday, Swiss drug company Novartis AG (NVS) announced it agreed to acquire the specialty generic injectables business of Austrian Ebewe Pharma for $1.2 billion in cash, grabbing two growth sectors with one deal: generic and cancer drugs.

Today, Novartis released Phase III data for a new medicine -- investigational bronchodilator QAB149, which showed it significantly improved lung function over current treatments in patients suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Not only that, but the drug has the potential to become a blockbuster -- a $1 billion-a-year seller.
COPD is a debilitating and progressive respiratory disease, and is a leading and growing cause of death that affects 210 million people worldwide. It is commonly caused by cigarette smoke and other harmful fumes. According to the World Health Organization, COPD is currently projected to become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.

While COPD is incurable, bronchodilators are a group of drugs that widen the airways in the lungs, easing the symptoms of patients by improving airflow. The new Novartis drug showed that all doses of once-daily QAB149 met their endpoints versus placebo in Phase III trials, significantly improving lung function within five minutes of the first dose, lasting for 24 hours, from the first day of therapy to up to one year of treatment. QAB149 also showed significant improvements over current approved bronchodilators formoterol and tiotropium, both marketed by different companies, including Novartis.

QAB149 is being reviewed for approval in the European Union and the United States. Trevor Mundel, head of development at Novartis Pharma, said the drug could be on the market next year. He also told Reuters, "I think QAB becomes a very substantial opportunity. I think heading towards a blockbuster."

In a statement, Mundel also said that "QAB149 could become the foundation of a portfolio of medicines that aims to improve peoples' respiratory health." These could include combinations to fight lung cancer. Trials for the combinations will start in the next quarters. If QAB by itself has blockbuster potential, the combinations would only add to future possibilities, especially taking into account Novartis's respiratory pipeline.

With current blockbuster Diovan for high blood pressure set to lose its patent in 2012, Novartis's recent actions seem to be moving it in the right direction. The stock finished the day flat, on a day the market was down over one percent.

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