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April 11, 2007
Amgen: The Pythian Oracle Laughs Again
Amgen's not getting a lot of good press these days. They're famously the House that EPO built, but (in a familiar story) they may have pressed their lead franchise too far. An excellent backgrounder can be found here at Nature Biotechnology. In short, the company was coining money in the renal market, and looked for new areas where EPO could be of use (and of profit). Chemotherapy-induced anemia looked like a winner, and Amgen aggressively promoted EPO's use in oncology. (Correction - the real extension was into cancer-associated anemia, not just that induced by chemotherapy. See the comments for more - DBL). But (as the editorial details), this whole strategy is backfiring disastrously.
First off, anemia doesn't appear to be a major cause of chemotherapy side effects. If that weren't bad enough, a series of clinical trials have shown that patients receiving standard therapy plus EPO do worse than usual. As of last month, all forms of EPO now have a new black-box label warning. Not ugly enough yet? OK, the company has admitted that it knew about some of this data but didn't talk about it for months. The SEC is investigating them for that decision, and Medicare is looking at whether the company has been overcharging. Their CFO just announced that he's "pursuing other interests".
A sample of the Nature B. editorial makes its point well:
"Amgen does not come out of this well. Although seeking new indications for existing medicines is clearly a valid strategy, the company appears to have miscalculated the balance between expansion and the risks to its existing business—and potentially opened itself to charges that it has recklessly endangered patients' lives. . .
Furthermore, Amgen has surely miscalculated strategically. Any benefits from the commercial push to extend Aranesp into new oncology markets are likely to bring relatively modest returns—Aranesp's 2006 sales in cancer-associated anemia, for example, were approx. $500 million. But the repercussions of failure will be felt not only in cancer but also potentially across all EPO markets. A proportion of the whole $7.1 billion Epogen and Aranesp franchise—nearly 50% of Amgen's total revenue in 2006—is thus under threat."
Amgen isn't the first drug company to have over-reached. Everyone's going to try to make the most of their existing drugs, especially when there aren't all that many things coming along to replace them. But readers with some classical background may well think of Croesus crossing the Halys every time they hear about this kind of thing. . .
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