Pfizer's Post-Lipitor Plan: Focus on Alzheimer's, Cancer and Pain

Pfizer's Post Lipitor Plan: Focus on Alzheimer's, Cancer and Asian Diseases
Pfizer's Post Lipitor Plan: Focus on Alzheimer's, Cancer and Asian Diseases

For years, Pfizer (PFE) has been trying to prepare for the "patent cliff" it's heading for in 2011. That's when its cholesterol drug Lipitor -- the biggest-selling drug ever with over $11 billion in annual sales -- will fall off the rolls of protected drugs. Now, Pfizer says it expects some of its upcoming products for Alzheimer's, cancer and pain to reach blockbuster status -- that is, annual sales in excess of $1 billion.

"We're in the golden age of drug discovery," Martin Mackay, Pfizer's president of pharmaceutical research, told Bloomberg Television. "We have a very replete pipeline in key areas such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, pain and inflammation" and infectious diseases.

The world's No. 1 drugmaker has pursued a variety of different strategies in its quest to find new sources of revenue to replace its inevitable losses to generic competition. It restructured with massive layoffs, completed a $68 billion mega-merger with Wyeth and made a big push into generics. It moved into treating rare diseases and producing vaccines, it licensed stem cell therapies, it intends to expand further in emerging markets, and it even plans to enter the business of making cheaper copies of the pricey, injectable biologic drugs called biosimilars.

But even as it branched out and diversified, its pipeline suffered one setback after another recently. In early March, Pfizer and Medivation (MDVN) said their experimental Alzheimer's drug Dimebon failed to benefit patients in an advanced study. It later halted two Phase 3 trials of Sutent as a treatment for advanced breast cancer and stopped a clinical trial of figitumumab for patients with previously treated advanced non-small cell lung cancer. That wasn't the first setback for the drug.

So when a Pfizer exec claims blockbuster treatments are coming for Alzheimer's -- a particularly tough research field -- and cancer, some investors may raise an eyebrow. It typically takes 10 to 15 years and around $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. While Mackay says Pfizer increased the number of drugs it has in Phase 3 trials from eight in 2007 to 26 at the end of 2009, not even including drugs it picked up with its Wyeth acquisition, it's still hard to see sufficient progress for the New-York-based company to replace the upcoming decline in Lipitor sales.

Next Big Push for Pfizer Will Be in Asia

According to Bloomberg, Mackay cited tasocitinib, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, among the drugs that will replace lost revenue from cholesterol-controlling Lipitor. He also said that rather than try to replace one mega-blockbuster with another, the company will aim to produce several smaller blockbusters, Bloomberg reported. Growth will also be achieved by getting more into nutritionals, consumer products, animal-health products, and so on, Mackay said.

Pfizer also is putting its hopes on expanding into in the under-tapped markets of Asia. To further expand its reach in the region, the company is planning to increase research on Asian populations by about 10% this year as it tests more treatments for diseases that are particularly prevalent in Asia, such as gastric cancer, liver cancer and head and neck cancer. Its clinical research unit in Singapore will be used as a base for Asia-specific research as it explores the causes of diseases in different populations. Last year, of the 600 trials Pfizer ran worldwide, Mackay said 23 were done in Singapore.

Further, the company announced this week a partnership with MicuRx Pharmaceuticals and China-based Cumencor Pharmaceuticals to develop antibiotics for drug-resistant tuberculosis in China.