Are obesity drugs nearing a breakout?

Analysts have been waiting–and waiting–for drugmakers to realize the growth they’ve predicted for the obesity market. And with a couple of pharma companies preparing to pony up R&D and marketing resources for their obesity products, it could finally be on the way.

Novo Nordisk ($NVO)–whose weight-loss injection Saxenda won the favor of an FDA advisory panel last week–is preparing to bring on the “most eminent people” in the obesity field, Chief Science Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen told Bloomberg. In addition to adding R&D staffers by the hundreds, the Danish drugmaker plans to seek out collaborations with universities and biotechs that will spur some ideas for new therapies.

“We are taking a whole portfolio approach, pretty much like Novo Nordisk has done in diabetes, with different solutions for different people,” Thomsen said, as quoted by the news service.
That’s a big vote of confidence in the market for obesity drugs, which could bode well for other drugmakers trying to get traction for their weight-loss meds. Takeda, Orexigen’s ($OREX) marketing partner on the just-approved weight-loss pill Contrave, recently told Medical Marketing & Media that it plans to devote a force of 900 sales reps to hawking the newcomer.

Novo has its own beefed-up field force ready to spur on Saxenda. If all goes well for Novo and Takeda, their new market entrants could trigger the long-anticipated arrival of a multibillion-dollar market for weight-loss drugs. With more than a third of U.S. adults considered obese by the CDC, there’s no shortage of patients that could qualify for treatment.

Just 2 million of the 100 million potential patients are receiving a prescription weight-loss aid, Orexigen’s Chief Commercial Officer Mark Booth said during a Thursday presentation. “It’s a large, rapidly growing and vastly underserved market,” he said, as quoted by MM&M.

But so far, next-gen obesity drugmakers have run into their fair share of troubles. They’ve struggled to persuade doctors to get behind weight-loss meds, patients to stay on them and payers to cover them. Qsymia sales woes spurred an all-out proxy war at California-based Vivus ($VVUS) last year, and rival Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals ($ARNA) hasn’t fared much better, despite a marketing partnership with Japan’s Eisai. In 2013, Qsymia pulled in just $23.7 million, with Belviq netting just slightly more at $25 million.

Analysts still insist a change is coming, though. Matthew Andrews at Wells Fargo has said he sees Contrave raking in $634 million in 2020 sales, but that figure could be as high as $1.2 billion if Orexigen wins approval for the drug in treating diabetes. He forecasts $481 million for Belviq and $396 million for Qsymia, and Bloomberg analyst estimates peg Saxenda’s 2017 haul at $429 million.
Meanwhile, Arena is working on a growth plan of its own. The company is hoping that combining Belviq with generic weight-loss drug phentermine–of fen-phen fame–could spur a sales boost without the fen-phen cardio risks.

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