AstraZeneca sought to reassure investors this week by providing an update on progress made in strengthening its product pipeline, a worry for industry analysts who believe its existing products cannot underpin earnings growth for much longer.
The Anglo-Swedish company, Europe's third-largest pharmaceutical maker have been on the receiving end of stinging criticism over the company's relatively weak pipeline, particularly as competition from generic drugmakers to its key medicines intensifies over the next few years.
However, the pharma giants have responded to these harsh words by acquiring licenses for three new experimental drugs as well as purchasing privately held biotech company KuDOS Pharmaceuticals in December, last year.
In addition, Astrazeneca's deal with Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT) last month, seals an arrangement that significantly boosts the number of biological drugs in its portfolio - a move that most of big pharma has been implementing since biological drugs represent a new way of creating drugs as opposed to using traditional chemical compounds.
CAT has a number potentially big selling biological drugs, including treatments for cancer and asthma.
"We know what it will take to continue to deliver a strong performance over the next five years," said chief executive David Brennan.
"While new products will play a role, many of the ingredients for continuing our momentum can be found in our current product range," he added.
Senior analysts have noted that the update didn't contain any major surprises, such as changes in the outlook or the discontinuation or progress of significant products.
In an update on current trials, AZD9684 was looking good as the first member of a new anti-thrombotic class (CPU inhibitors). Astrazeneca said that results from an intravenous concept study evaluating its ability to dissolve clots in patients with pulmonary embolism would become available during the second half of 2006.
The company sought to build a strong anti-atheroma franchise, based on new approaches to this disease. Its candidate AZD4121, a cholesterol absorption inhibitor, would be taken into Phase I early next year.
>AstraZeneca will also develop its neuronal nicotinic receptor agonist AZD3480, licensed from Targacept for its first indications in Alzheimer's disease and cognitive deficits in schizophrenia.
AstraZeneca expressed delight with the progress being made with its existing alliance with CAT. The company were on track to deliver at least two new monoclonal antibodies for human testing per year.
In addition, the first fully human monoclonal candidate from this collaboration would enter development by the end of the year.
"There are three elements to our strategy to strengthen the pipeline: improve the productivity of our in-house Discovery and Development efforts; aggressively pursue promising products and technologies from external sources; and build an international presence in the research and development of biological therapeutics," commented Brennan.
Its infection pipeline showed equal promise as its genomic approach to anti-bacterials is finally yielding its first candidates. AstraZeneca reported that AZD1279, a novel bactericidal antibiotic from a totally new chemical class, demonstrated in vitro activity against resistant organisms including S. pneumoniae and will enter Phase I for respiratory infections later this year.
It's oncology pipeline showed solid progress as ZD4054 demonstrated the potential to be best in class endothelin A antagonist. The results of a study in hormone resistant prostate cancer will determine the progression into Phase III and will complete by the end of Q3 2006.
Other firsts include the first molecule from its collaboration with Array BioPharma. The MEK inhibitor AZD6244 (ARRY-142886), has entered Phase II in malignant melanoma, the first of a range of tumour types. AZD6244 is potentially first in class.
The anti-angiogenic monoclonal antibody AZD5180 is the first candidate drug to emerge from its collaboration with Abgenix/Amgen. Human trials were anticipated early next year.