Pfizer’s Cancer Portfolio Expected to Rake in $8.3 Billion in 2019

Pfizer logo on side of building

Pfizer is a big company with a diverse portfolio, but it hasn’t really been noted for its presence in the oncology market. The majority of its successful drugs are in primary care and heart medicine, like Lipitor (atorvastatin) for cholesterol, Lyrica (pregabalin) for neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia, Zithromax (azithromycin), an antibiotic, and Viagra (sildenafil) for erectile dysfunction.

But now, Pfizer offers 17 drugs to treat cancer, with four approved in the U.S. in 2017. The oncology portfolio, according to EvaluatePharma, is projected to bring in $8.3 billion in sales in 2019. For the first time, cancer drugs are expected to sell more than the cardiac and primary-care medicines.

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“At Pfizer, oncology is one of the core components of the organization—going from an almost afterthought,” Andy Schmeltz, global president of Pfizer Oncology, told the Wall Street Journal

WSJ indicates that marketing executives in the biopharma industry like oncology because promoting these drugs to oncologists and hospitals takes a smaller sales force than to market cholesterol and hypertension drugs to primary care physicians. And according to EvaluatePharma, oncology drug sales are projected to hit $138 billion globally this year with an 11-percent growth rate in 2019. They’re fairly pricey drugs as well, with a typical cancer drug having a list price of $100,000.

Emma Walmsley, chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline, told WSJ, “The unmet need as well as the biological advances are still so significant that there’s a lot of room for a lot of people to be successful.”

And, of course, 2019 marked the acquisition of cancer specialist Celgene by Bristol-Myers Squibb for a whopping $74 billion. That combined company will have nine products with more than $1 billion in annual sales each. Its oncology pipeline for solid and hematologic tumors will be led by Opdivo, Revlimid, Pomalyst and Yervoy.

For years, there were four so-called “pillars” of oncology treatment. They were surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies, which recognize specific features on cancer cells. But over the last five years or so, a fifth pillar has been added, immuno-therapy or immuno-oncology. This includes PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors like Opdivo and Merck’s Keytruda, CTLA-4 checkpoint inhibitors like Yervoy, and others. It also includes CAR-T therapies like Novartis’ Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) and Gilead/Kite’s Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel).

The immuno-oncology global market alone is expected to pass $100 billion by 2022.

Pfizer began building its oncology capacity in 2008, partly to offset an oncoming patent cliff for some of its biggest non-cancer drugs. This led to the company hiring researchers like Mace Rothenberg, then with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and now the company’s chief medical officer. 

Pfizer’s oncology focus is on breast, prostate and lung cancer. Its first cancer drug, Sutent, to be approved since 1970 received the thumbs-up in 2006. In 2011, the FDA approved its lung cancer drug Xalkori. Its top-selling cancer drug is Ibrance, which brought in almost $3 billion in the first nine months of 2018. Three of Pfizer’s 17 oncology drugs are biosimilars, which are essentially generic versions of biologics drugs.

Despite these successes, Pfizer has struggled in the new immuno-oncology arena. Its primary drug in this category is Bavencio, developed with Darmstadt, Germany’s Merck KGaA and approved in 2018 for two rare cancers, metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma (mMCC) and locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma (UC). It has failed in four late-stage trials for other cancers, however. Part of Pfizer’s strategy—like most companies in the oncology space—is to focus on combination therapies that use multiple drugs.

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