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How Roche (RHHBY) Fine-Tuned an Old Drug Under a New Name to Keep Making Profits

8/23/2017 6:47:37 AM

How Roche Fine-Tuned An Old Drug Under A New Name To Keep Making Profits
August 24, 2017
By Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

BASEL, Switzerland – In March, Roche and its subsidiary Genentech snagged regulatory approval for its new multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus. But, it turns out the drug isn’t that new after all. It’s an updated version of the company’s blockbuster oncology drug, Rituxan – and sold at 10 times the price.

Doctors in Sweden have been prescribing Rituxan to MS patients for a number of years due to its efficacy in halting the progression of the disease, Bloomberg said in a recent report. Doctors in Sweden have great latitude in prescribing off-label drug treatments for their patients, Bloomberg said. Despite that efficacy, Roche never sought to market the drug for its off-label benefits, instead it developed a new option specifically for MS, Ocrevus. The reasoning is simple, profit, according to the Bloomberg piece.

In the United States, patients spend between $8,000 and $10,000 per year for Rituxan. The price is significantly lower in Sweden, around $2,400, Bloomberg said. Newly approved Ocrevus though has an annual price tag of about $65,000 in the United States.

The patents for Rituxan are expiring within a few years. Another drugmaker is also due its share of Rituxan monies. That’s why Roche invested in the development of Ocrevus, Bloomberg said.

Ocrevus was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in March. It is the first and only approved disease-modifying therapy for primary progressive form of MS, Roche said. Ocrevus is a monoclonal antibody designed to target CD20-positive B cells, a specific type of immune cell thought to be a key contributor to myelin (nerve cell insulation and support) and axonal (nerve cell) damage. Rituxan shares the same mechanism of action.
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While Gorsky is remaining on the council some are criticizing his decision. Arundhati Parmar, the editor of MedCity News, excoriated Gorsky’s decision, saying in an open letter that Gorsky will be known by the company he keeps.

Bloomberg said Roche has sought to point out the differences between the two drugs. Roche said Ocrevus is designed for long-term use, which means it has fewer side effects and patients aren’t likely to develop resistance to the drug.

Multiple sclerosis affects about 2.5 million people globally. MS occurs when the immune system abnormally attacks the insulation and support around nerve cells (myelin sheath) in the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, causing inflammation and consequent damage, Roche said.

When it was approved, some analysts projected Ocrevus could generate between $2.6 and $3.8 billion. Bloomberg noted the drug is definitely looking like it is on its way to meeting those revenue predictions. At $200 million, first quarter sales were much higher than expected, making it among the best drug launches the company has seen. The European Medicines Agency is expected to rule on Ocrevus later this year, which would open up additional markets for the drug.

Roche is certainly not the only company to revamp an older drug for a new use. Bloomberg pointed to a report that showed numerous drugs having found new life for different indications.

Early on in its use there was a report of one German patient who switched to Ocrevus from Biogen’s Tysabri and developed a deadly brain infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Tysabri does have a history with PML.

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