GSK Returns to War against Cancer

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April 3, 2016

It looked like the UK pharmaceuticals group GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was declaring surrender in the war on cancer when the company agreed to sell its oncology drugs for $16 billion to Novartis in 2014. However, after two years, GSK returns to this war on cancer again.

Axel Hoos, the head of oncology R&D in GSK, believes that the company could be at the forefront of the next generation of cancer therapies as it has at least a dozen oncology assets in clinical development. Although these assets are at an early stage, they include some promising new approaches. “We have been rebuilding our pipeline,” Axel says.

However, critics have questioned the decision of GSK to sell its cancer drugs and dismantle its oncology salesforce if it still had ambitions in the market. Some critics also commented that GSK chose to swap cancer drugs for toothpaste after the company started a joint-venture with Novartis. However, Sir Andrew Witty, GSK’s chief executive, argued that the cancer drugs sold to Novartis were “last generation” products and also that GSK did not have sufficient scale in the oncology market to make them successful. He added that through offloading those drugs, GSK could start focusing on the cutting-edge oncology as a nimbler and smarter biotech company. The company concentrated much of its efforts in immune-oncology, which is a new category of cancer drugs that destroy the cancer cells by harnessing the immune system.

However, Mr. Hoos admitted that GSK is lagging years behind the leaders in immune-oncology research like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck whose products are already accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. He also claimed that GSK is building a strong position among the second and third generation of immunotherapies promising to widen the range of cancer patients who get benefits. GSK expects to earn a big share of the immune-oncology market which will worth tens of billions of dollars a year within the next decade. Although almost all other big pharma group and many other biotech companies have already started to invest in this field, and many are at a more advanced stage in the research.

Despite all these factors, investors have started to take GSK’s efforts seriously as part of a reappraisal of the group’s prospects after a few difficult years. In the past six months, GSK’s shares are up 10 percent. This is significant comparing with a 12 percent drop in the S&P pharmaceuticals index.

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