February 12, 2009

New York Times

Novartis Buys Rights to a Drug to Thin Blood


Novartis has obtained the worldwide rights to an anticlotting drug that could eventually compete with Plavix, the world’s second-best-selling medicine behind the cholesterol pill Lipitor.


In a deal expected to be announced Thursday, Novartis would pay $75 million initially to Portola Pharmaceuticals, a privately held biotechnology company based in South San Francisco, Calif.


The drug, elinogrel, is still in the second of three phases of clinical trials, so it is not yet clear how effective it will be in preventing heart attacks and strokes. And even if a successful Phase 3 trial is completed and federal regulators approved the drug, it would be unlikely to reach the market before 2013 or later.


Yet based on how it works, Portola and Novartis say, it might be faster than Plavix. And its effects might be more reversible. Patients taking Plavix who need an operation sometimes have to wait several days until the drug is out of their system to avoid the risk of excessive bleeding.


Plavix, sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis, had sales of $7.3 billion in 2007, according to IMS Health, a research company.


But it could soon face competition. An advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration last week recommended approval of prasugrel, a blood thinner developed by Eli Lilly and Daiichi Sankyo.


Prasugrel has some of the same drawbacks as Plavix, according Dr. Charles Homcy, Portola’s chief executive. But AstraZeneca has a reversible drug that is closer to reaching the market than Portola’s drug, Dr. Homcy said. All the drugs work by keeping platelets from sticking together.


For Novartis, the move represents a push into a new area of cardiovascular medicine. It is now a leader in drugs for high blood pressure, led by Diovan, which has sales of more than $5 billion a year. But Diovan will lose patent protection in 2012.


Besides the initial $75 million payment, Portola will be eligible for up to $500 million in milestone payments from Novartis and a double-digit royalty on sales of the drug. Novartis will pay for the final-stage trials.