1 Big Pharma in Survival Mode

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At first glance, a company making nearly $28 billion in revenue and $6.3 billion in profit doesn't seem to fit the description of being in survival mode. However, that's exactly where big pharma AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN  ) finds itself. 

Sales for antipsychotic drug Seroquel IR plunged more than $3 billion in 2012 as generic rivals gained market share. Nearly another $1 billion in revenue declines came from Nexium, Atacand, and Merrem. All three drugs also lost patent protection in some markets.

The next few years don't look promising, either. Crestor, AstraZeneca's blockbuster cholesterol drug and No. 1 revenue-generator, goes off patent in 2014. Nexium loses U.S. patent exclusivity that same year. These two drugs combined for more than 36% of the company's 2012 sales. Unfortunately, the company's newer products aren't even close to picking up the slack.

AstraZeneca projects that revenue in 2013 will decrease in the mid- to high single digits and that earnings will drop "significantly greater than revenue." Unless something radically changes, the financial picture will deteriorate even worse next year. AstraZeneca as it exists today is in survival mode. What can the company do to make it through these major challenges? Here are three possible steps. 

1. Make the most of what it's got
Any survival expert will tell you that you have to make the most of what you have available. In AstraZeneca's case, that's not an easy proposition. The company touts bloodthinner Brilinta as its top growth platform. However, Brilinta competes against Plavix from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) and Sanofi (NYSE: SNY  ) and Lilly's (NYSE: LLY  ) Effient, both of which are priced more cheaply. Even worse, generic versions of Plavix have been available for several months now. 

What's next on AstraZeneca's list of growth drivers? Diabetes drugs Bydureon, Forxiga, and Onglyza. These three hold promise, with some analysts projecting annual sales of more than $1 billion eventually for Bydureon. One drawback is that AstraZeneca splits profits with Bristol on these drugs, but beggars can't be choosers.

The key for AstraZeneca effectively leveraging these assets, as well as its handful of late-stage pipeline drugs, lies in out-marketing the competition. That's one area where the company excels. To get out from under the overhang of future revenue losses, it will have to shine even brighter in this area. 

2. Make even more deals
AstraZeneca hasn't been shy about forging partnerships to boost revenue. We already noted its development collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb on its diabetes drugs. In August, the company also announced an agreement with Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) to market an over-the-counter version of Nexium. 

At the end of 2012, AstraZeneca and Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IONS  ) announced a strategic alliance. Under the terms of the deal, AstraZeneca gains the rights to use Isis' antisense technology for five cancer targets.

More such deals will be needed. Ideally, AstraZeneca would be able to rely on its own pipeline. However, there aren't enough high-power drugs that will hit the market soon enough to mitigate the damage from loss of patent protection for its current big brands.

This actually brings us back to our first point of making the most of what is available. One thing that AstraZeneca still has plenty of is cash -- $8.5 billion as of the end of 2012. Partnerships and licensing deals enable the company to stretch that cash across more possible drugs. That's not to say that smart acquisitions shouldn't be considered. However, every penny needs to be maximized to generate the greatest probability of return. 

3. Make major changes in R&D
Ultimately, the best way to survive and thrive is by launching new products. Consider, though, that AstraZeneca knew a long time ago that it would be facing the current challenges. And yet, it didn't have the research and development programs in place to fill the shoes of those drugs losing exclusivity.

To be fair, AstraZeneca has plenty of company in that regard. However, some of its peers seem to have woken up to the reality that the way they did things in the past won't be as effective going forward.

GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK  ) is one good example. In 2008, Glaxo introduced a new R&D approach called Discovery Performance Units, or DPUs. Each DPU is made up of five to 70 scientists who focus on discovery of new molecules targeting specific therapeutic areas. The DPUs receive only a three-year budget. Those that show enough success within that period continue, while those that don't are eliminated with the budget dollars refocused on more promising drugs. Glaxo reports solid improvement in its R&D productivity using this approach.

I think that AstraZeneca should consider something along the lines of Glaxo's approach. The company should also seek to take full advantage of the new relationship with Isis and its antisense drug discovery platform. Isis' RNA-based drug discovery approach holds several potential benefits, including reducing time and cost.

Odds and dividends
What are the odds that AstraZeneca will survive? If we're strictly speaking of survival as an entity, those chances are good. However, the odds of the company retaining close to its current market cap or higher within the next five years are more daunting. 

AstraZeneca's high dividend yield of 8.4% provides a tempting target for many investors. My view is that the dividend should be safe for the immediate future. The company says that it will maintain or grow its dividend for 2013. However, with it also predicting plunging earnings, I wonder how long that situation can last. AstraZeneca should make it, but I wouldn't put good odds on an 8%-plus dividend surviving.

Another member of the survival club?
Eli Lilly shares many of the same challenges as AstraZeneca. Is Lilly another dividend stock headed nowhere fast? In a new premium report, The Motley Fool's senior pharmaceuticals analyst breaks down all of Lilly's moving parts, including an in-depth analysis of the company's must-know opportunities and reasons to buy and sell today. To find out more -- and get a full year of free updates -- click here to claim your copy today.

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Keith Speights

Keith began writing for the Fool in 2012 and focuses primarily on healthcare investing topics. His background includes serving in management and consulting for the healthcare technology, health insurance, medical device, and pharmacy benefits management industries.

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