Cancer drug once bought for US$7m may now fetch US$18b

Cancer drug once bought for US$7m may now fetch US$18b
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Published: 1:55 PM, February 26, 2015
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NEW YORK — An overlooked drug bought by a biotech company for a mere US$6.6 million (S$8.94 million) a decade ago could become one of the biggest selling cancer treatments ever.

Those high expectations have its maker, Pharmacyclics, considering selling itself in a deal that could be worth as much as US$18 billion.

The Sunnyvale, California-based company has attracted interest from companies including Johnson & Johnson and Novartis AG, Bloomberg reported yesterday (Feb 25). Cancer is one of the most lucrative areas of drug development, and Imbruvica is an easy-to-use pill that costs around US$100,000 a year, avoids certain serious side effects of chemotherapy, and patients can stay on it for long periods of time.

The drug has also made a billionaire of Chief Executive Officer Robert W. Duggan. Duggan owns 13.5 million shares, or 18 per cent, of Pharmacyclics. The stock constitutes the bulk of his US$3.2 billion net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He amassed most of the shares at a cost of US$42 million between 2004 and 2011, when he used his holdings to take a board seat and eventually control of the company.

The drug is projected to join the ranks of other top-selling oncology drugs, with US$4.2 billion in estimated sales in 2019, according to an average of estimates by analysts.

Imbruvica “certainly has the potential of Gleevec-like revenue,” said Mr Brian Druker, director of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, referring to Novartis AG’s US$4.75 billion drug for chronic myeloid leukemia. “It’s a big deal and the responses have been impressive” in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, one of its main uses.


While the drug is now approved for both mantle cell lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, at the time its promise wasn’t obvious, said Mr Druker.

“There was no slam dunk there,” said Mr Druker. “It was risk taking and vision and believing in something and getting into patients and seeing what happens.”

Gleevec, which Mr Druker pioneered, attacks the main gene mutation that causes CML, or chronic myeloid leukemia. In CLL, it wasn’t clear that a pathway blocked by Imbruvica would prove crucial in slowing down tumors until it was tested in people, he said.

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