As It Focuses on Cutting-Edge Therapies, Novartis Cuts 20% of Research Programs

Novartis logo on outside of building

Denis Linine /

Novartis is abandoning approximately 20 percent of its research projects after a strategic review.

According to Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, the company is cutting its drug programs from 430 to 340. One of the big areas the company is abandoning is infectious diseases.

“The sadness about these 90 projects is there’s some great science there,” Bradner told Bloomberg.“These are not bad ideas. Many of them have momentum, but they either are not likely to be transformative for patients, or are ill-suited to the focused business ambitions of Novartis.”

The decision is a result of a strategic review by Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan, the company’s chief executive officer, who took over from Joseph Jimenez in January 2018. Narasimhan was previously global head of Drug Development and chief medical officer. When he was appointed chief executive, he was expected to place more emphasis on drug development, which, despite the cuts, appears to be true, with a focus on more cutting-edge and transformative efforts.

Two of the areas the company is emphasizing is cell and gene therapies, marked by its acquisition of AveXis in April for $8.7 billion. AveXis has a gene therapy candidate, AVXS-101, for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). And in August 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Novartis’ CAR-T treatment, Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel).

Of the projects it is terminating, some will be picked up by other companies, but some will be terminated, while others, Bradner told Bloomberg, will “need to sit on the shelf for a little while.”

Earlier in the year, it moved away from antibiotic development, and in early October, licensed three programs related to antibiotic-resistant infections to Boston Pharma.

Yesterday, Novartis and Pfizer announced they had signed a non-exclusive clinical development deal to investigate one or more combination therapies for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). NASH is similar to cirrhosis of the liver but occurs in people that drink little or no alcohol. 

The two companies will run both non-clinical and Phase I clinical trials of a combination of three Pfizer drugs with Novartis’ tropifexor, a non-bile acid, Farnesoid X receptor (FXR) agonist.

“This is an exciting collaboration with Novartis that furthers our approach to this complex disease by exploring different and potentially complementary mechanisms of action,” stated Morris Birnbaum, Pfizer Internal Medicine’s senior vice president and chief scientific officer.

And in June, Novartis indicated it planned to spin off Alcon, its eye care division, into a separately-traded standalone company. That will allow the two companies to focus on their own individual growth strategies.

Novartis also has plans to divest itself of a consumer health joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline. These are all signs that Narasimhan is not only streamlining the company, but focusing on gene therapy, concentrating on cancer, neuroscience and ophthalmology, although the focus on ophthalmology seems peculiar in light of spinning off Alcon. But Novartis apparently plans to keep the eye drug products to itself and let Alcon handle equipment and consumer products for eye care.

In a June statement, Narasimhan said, “We want to be able to focus our capital allocation to our core, and we believe our core is going to be novel platforms to develop innovative medicines and to invest in data and digital technologies.”

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