Lipitor, Celebrex and Zoloft are some of the pills taken daily by millions of people that helped make Pfizer the world's largest drugmaker. But the company's plans for the future now include a big dose of pricey biotech medicines to treat serious illnesses that affect relatively few patients.
Pfizer said this morning it's planning to sell a drug for Gaucher's disease, an inherited disorder that affects about 1 in 20,000 babies. People with Gaucher's lack an enzyme needed to process a type of fat whose build up over time can lead to brain damage.
The experimental medicine called taliglucerase alfa is a replacement enzyme produced in genetically engineered carrot cells by Protalix of Israel. For starters, Pfizer will fork over $60 million to Protalix for rights to market the drug outside Israel.
Pfizer's move puts it on a collision course with Genzyme, maker of a Gaucher's treatment called Cerezyme. About 5,700 people worldwide are treated with the medicine, which costs about $200,000 a year, the New York Times notes. Do the math and you'll find that's enough to pass $1 billion a year in sales, the conventional threshold that marks a blockbuster drug in the pharmaceutical industry.
Pfizer's David Simmons says the deal "supports our goal to meet the needs of many patient populations, including those affected by rare diseases...."
It's the latest sign of the waning era of blockbuster pills marketed widely and prescribed heavily by primary care doctors.
Just the other day, the Financial Times recounted the history of cholesterol-fighter Lipitor, the world's best selling brand-name drug ever, and ended the piece with a lament for the huge sellers that made Pfizer and other drugmakers such profit machines over the past 20 years. "Let's face it, Big Pharma is contracting and the age of the blockbuster model is not sustainable," Roger Newton, a key figure in the development of Lipitor, told the FT. "Product cycles take much longer, you need more rigorous development programs and regulators are more safety-conscious."
It's also pretty hard to come up with drugs that do a better job than the now-generic versions of the hit brand-name medicines of the '90s for treating such common conditions as depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.