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Tysabri: It's a Blockbuster! Yawn. So What?

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The financial press can finally drop the "potential" in front of blockbuster when describing Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB  ) and Elan's (NYSE: ELN  ) multiple sclerosis drug, Tyasbri. As part of the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, Biogen announced that sales of Tysabri had passed the $1 billion mark in 2009, making it an official blockbuster.

Whoopty do.

Whether sales were $1.01 billion or $999 million last year doesn't really matter. The $1 billion in annual sales is an arbitrary figure that we've assigned the delineate "blockbusters" to make them sound important.

What really matters is how many patients are going onto Tysabri. While the drug works better than other multiple sclerosis drugs like Biogen's Avonex, Teva Pharmaceutical's (Nasdaq: TEVA  ) Copaxone, Novartis' (NYSE: NVS  ) Extavia, and Rebif from Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) and EMD Serono, it also increases the risk of a potentially deadly brain infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). Biogen and Elan have to find a way to convince patients and their doctors that the benefit is worth the risk.

At the end of the year, it doesn't look like the companies are getting it done.


Q1 2009

Q2 2009

Q3 2009

Q4 2009

Number of patients on Tysabri





Quarter-over-quarter increase





Source: Company press releases.

These are quarterly growth figures, so there's some seasonality to the numbers. Biogen blamed the slower growth in the third quarter on summer vacations. I expect it'll blame the fourth quarter on December holidays.

Don't expect "Tysabri: The Comeback Story" to become a big-screen blockbuster just yet. Unfortunately, until the companies come out with a treatment for PML or a test to determine the susceptibility of getting PML, sales growth may be stuck.

Elan is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. The newsletter is always on the hunt for hot drug stocks and other cutting-edge picks. Click here to see all of our latest discoveries with a free 30-day trial subscription.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Pfizer is an Inside Value recommendation. Novartis is a Global Gains pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2010, at 3:52 PM, TMFBreakerJava wrote:

    Hi Brian,

    The quarterly numbers are single digit, but year over year the growth was more than 20%. As you wrote, more and more patients are calculating that the risk is worth the benefit when they relapse in spite of the existing treatment. So I am not sure I agree that the vendors are "not getting it done".



  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2010, at 5:52 PM, TMFBiologyFool wrote:

    It's all relative I guess. I'd rather invest in a company with 10% growth that's accelerating than a company with 20% growth that's decelerating.


  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2010, at 11:53 PM, JPDemers wrote:

    Not even if that 20% is 20% of a billion dollars?

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