Drug giant Pfizer is reported to start 20 clinical trials this year and more soon after to become a drug giant in the cancer medicine space. Only known for its erectile dysfunction treatment Viagra and blockbuster cholesterol fighter Lipitor, Pfizer has come a long way to conquer the space which is the most lucrative in terms of medicines.
Today, Pfizer has eight approved cancer medicines, four of them launched in the last four years. It’s running late-stage patient tests on five of those drugs for additional uses, has three other drugs in late-stage testing usually the last round before seeking approval from regulators and has 14 other cancer drug development programs in early stages.
New York-based Pfizer Inc. chose to make cancer one of its core research areas, pitting it against cancer powerhouses including Novartis AG, Roche Holding AG, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Merck & Co.
Those programs together provide for a two-pronged attack on cancer, including drugs designed to kill tumor cells and other treatments in a promising new class called immuno-oncology that stimulate the immune system to mount a stronger defense against cancer.
Scientists “have never been closer to finding a cancer cure,” Mikael Dolsten, head of worldwide research and development at Pfizer, told journalists Tuesday during an update on the company’s cancer research strategy and pipeline of experimental drugs.
“Compared to other companies, we are uniquely positioned to be a leader” in cancer, Dolsten added.
He and other Pfizer executives said that’s because killing tumors and preventing cancer recurrence requires regimens of multiple drugs given together or sequentially, and the company has so many drugs that work by different mechanisms to try together.
“They clearly have the scale and R&D experience over time to be a major player in the immuno-oncology market,” said Edward Jones analyst Ashtyn Evans. “We’ve seen them do a lot in a short time.”
“They’re still pretty far behind Merck and Bristol in immuno-oncology,” she added, “but it’s going to be a large market that will have room for multiple players.”
Evans said Pfizer’s best prospect is its newest drug, breast cancer medicine Ibrance, which is now being tested against multiple other cancers.
Pfizer’s scientists now are collaborating more internally, rather than focusing just on their own project as once was the norm in research, said Mace Rothenberg, a senior vice president who oversees Pfizer’s efforts to discover potential cancer treatments. Pfizer also has numerous partnerships with university researchers uncovering scientific insights and with other pharmaceutical and biotech companies, big and small.
Those partnerships range from one with iTeos Therapeutics giving Pfizer rights to two compounds in laboratory testing and one with rival Merck, of Kenilworth, New Jersey, that is testing Merck’s immuno-oncology drug Keytruda, with two approved Pfizer drugs and an experimental one.
“You never know where the boundaries cross between being partners and competitors,” Dolsten noted.
He and other Pfizer executives said the key to better treatments is putting together the best targeted drug combinations and, before testing them in people, seeing how well they work on animals manipulated to have tumors with the same genetic variations as the patients they’re hoping to help.
Pfizer’s cancer research programs include ones using six different types of technology to target tumor cells, from genetically engineered antibodies to therapeutic vaccines, which use patients’ own tumor cells to create vaccines personalized to the genetic characteristics of their cancer.
Some of those programs are creating pills and antibody-based injected drugs that fight tumors by attacking “networks” within them that involve tumor metabolism, signaling and changes in gene function caused by external factors.
Pfizer also is developing several immuno-oncology treatments, including pills, injected drugs and therapeutic vaccines. Pfizer already has five such compounds in patient testing and expects to start testing in another five next year, said Albert Bourla, president of Pfizer Vaccines, Oncology and Consumer Healthcare.