Alkermes’s key strength is potent pharma pipeline
An inspired approach to clinical trial data is fuelling the firm’s assault on central nervous system ailments
Alkermes chief executive Richard Pops: “We are interested in depression, addiction, schizophrenia and pain, the big ones. Why? Because these are where governments are spending all the money.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When Alkermes acquired Elan’s drug technology business in Athlone in a $960 million buyout two years ago, everyone knew what it was after – or at least they thought they did. Both were strong players in drug-delivery technologies and in contract drug manufacture, and the Elan purchase was going to give it improved scale in those areas. An Irish domicile was an attractive added bonus.
In fact, what Alkermes did was deliver what looks now to be one of the most potent pipelines in biopharmaceuticals – building on its traditional strengths in schizophrenia while also moving into new areas, such as cancer, through its first proprietary protein drug.
Alongside five drugs on the market, Alkermes has six strong pipeline candidates – three at a reasonably advanced stage and three starting to work their way through the clinical testing process. “We knew when we came together with EDT we had the makings of a really great company,” says Alkermes chief executive Richard Pops. “But the glimmer in our eye was this proprietary science that was beginning to bubble up within Alkermes. The EDT merger turned a loss-making business into a profitable one and gave it the financial muscle to develop its in-house drugs.
“Fast forward two years [and] with the resources to fund the pipeline, the science, to give it time for the experiments to play out, for the data to be developed and, lo and behold, the pipeline reveals itself to be quite valuable,” he says. “In fact, this may be one of the most important pipelines in central nervous systems diseases in all of pharma right now.”
The “overnight” success has been built on the company’s strengths – its expertise in the central nervous system therapies and in opioids – and on its practice of taking strong therapies and addressing side effects which may be holding them back from delivering on their full potential.
The company has also built a name for delivering strong clinical trial data – one way or the other – on its pipeline drugs. Results earlier this year on ALKS 5461 – a treatment for depression that looks to build on the long-established efficacy of opiates in treating the condition while addressing the addiction issue that had seen the use of such drugs abandoned – were so strong in therapy-resistant patients that it engendered great excitement.
“It is exactly illustrative of what the EDT deal did. It gave us the scale and resources to ask the critical questions earlier in the development programme.”
Young biotech companies living hand-to-mouth are sometimes constrained to run small studies which deliver just sufficient results to keep going, Pops notes, “whereas, for us, because the pipeline is so rich, we want to know which ones not to keep going as early as possible. That often requires running well-powered, larger clinical trials early to really discern the clinical effect that you are looking for.”
Most biotech business “live” in a zone where the risk is very high because they are often developing entirely new molecules for new medical targets, such as Elan did in its failed long-term bid to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s.