Being a Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) shareholder over the past 15 years hasn't been easy since shares of the pharmaceutical giant have essentially gone nowhere over that time span. Of course, that isn't for a lack of trying on the part of management.
Pfizer's trials and tribulations
Pfizer was wildly successful in the 1990s due in part to its broad product portfolio of drugs, led by cholesterol-lowering medication Lipitor. Today, despite no longer being protected by patents in the U.S., Lipitor is still the best-selling drug of all time. FierceBiotech placed its lifetime sales at $131 billion as of 2012.
The problem for Pfizer is that many of its blockbuster drugs have either lost their patent protection or are set to lose their exclusivity, and it's weighed on shares in a big way. The loss of Lipitor a few years ago and anti-inflammatory Celebrex last month are examples of billions of dollars in revenue that the company needs to recoup in a short period of time to appease Wall Street. Plainly, Pfizer's just not been able to keep up with the lost revenue from generic competition in recent years.
This could change with the introduction of key therapies. The approval of blood-thinner Eliquis, which was co-developed with Bristol-Myers Squibb, has the potential to deliver billions in annual sales if it gains additional label indications.
Also, the company's first-line estrogen-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer drug palbociclib is on track to become a multi-billion dollar drug if approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In its PALOMA-1 study, palbociclib in combination with Novartis' Femara nearly doubled progression-free survival to 20.2 months from 10.2 months in the Femara-only control group. The combo also improved overall survival by 4.2 months to 37.5 months over the control group.
There's plenty of hope for Pfizer shareholders that its pipeline containing 86 total clinical studies (as of November 2014) will pull through and push Pfizer higher. In total, Pfizer has 35 phase 1 studies under way, 22 phase 2, 23 phase 3, and six in the registration process.
This big pharma has a more robust pipeline than Pfizer
However, even with a robust pipeline of 86 studies there is one big pharma out there with even more clinical studies currently under way. Before reading any further, would you care to venture a guess?
Did anyone say Merck or Johnson & Johnson? Keep guessing.
How about the U.K. duo of GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, or Switzerland's Novartis? Still all wrong.
If you said Roche (OTC:RHHBY), though, you've managed to hit the nail right on the head.
Swiss pharma giant Roche currently has 35 ongoing phase 1 studies, 34 phase 2 studies, 27 phase 3 studies, and five experimental drugs in the registration process. Altogether that's 101 clinical studies currently under way or in registration compared to Pfizer's 86.
A pipeline to marvel at
Roche's pipeline is truly something to marvel at since it appears to be attacking a handful of serious chronic conditions.
For example, Roche's oncology pipeline is nearly as deep as Novartis' entire pipeline, regardless of indication! Roche's cancer-fighting research is 61 clinical studies deep, with a number of label expansion plans under way. These include attempting to get Kadcyla approved for advanced HER2-positive gastric cancer, adding Avastin as a treatment for first-line metastatic ovarian cancer and as an adjuvant treatment for non-small cell lung cancer, and getting Perjeta approved as an early stage treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer. Considering that adding Perjeta to the combo of Herceptin and docetaxel in HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer patients increased median overall survival to 56.5 months in the CLEOPATRA trial, a record period of time for a trial studying an advanced stage of cancer, there's a lot of promise here.
Beyond cancer. Roche has 40 other ongoing studies, including 10 in immunology, four in ophthalmology, five in infectious diseases, four in cardiometabolism, 16 in neuroscience, and one rare disease (hemophilia A).
Of particular interest here (at least to me) is Roche's focus on Alzheimer's disease with two mid- and one late-stage study and its three hepatitis C midstage trials.
Alzheimer's is intriguing since there are only a handful of drugs approved by the FDA to treat it. The blood-brain barrier has been difficult for drug developers to conquer, meaning getting a drug approved in this space will likely give it a long shelf life. More importantly, with Alzheimer's diagnoses on the rise, patients need quality of life improvements sooner rather than later.
Hepatitis C, on the other hand, has already witnessed three recent approvals: two from Gilead Sciences and one from AbbVie. Yet, there could still be improvements made here as well. The cure rate of Gilead's and AbbVie's hepatitis C drugs average about 95%, which is still short of perfect. Furthermore, Gilead and AbbVie's therapies are often administered for 12 weeks. There's ample opportunity to develop a hepatitis C therapy capable of being effective in a shorter time span. Plus, with 180 million people worldwide with HCV, according to the World Health Organization, this is a disease with room for multiple drug developers.
It's important to keep in mind that pipeline size alone doesn't guarantee Roche more success than Pfizer. Roche's clinical studies and the size of its patient pool will ultimately do the talking and help investors decide which pipeline is more valuable. However, on paper, and based on indication diversity, Roche appears to have a leg up on Pfizer and the rest of its big pharma peers.