In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe is calling attention to a new trend in big pharma's biologics development: companies developing second-generation versions of other companies' best-selling drugs. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Pfizer is working on a version of blood cancer and rheumatoid arthritis treatment Rituxan, first developed by Roche and Biogen. In December 2008, Merck reported the creation of a new business unit called Merck BioVentures, which would be tasked with creating follow-on biologics — it aims to launch at least six of them between 2012 and 2017. Lowe says he can see the rationale for these follow-on drugs from a business point of view, but that since the companies aim to change things like how often the drugs get administered, they'll be different enough to require their own complete clinical workups. And by the time they get to market, he adds, they'll have to compete with the previous lower-cost versions of the same drugs, and could have a tough time convincing insurance companies that there's enough benefit to the new version to switch. "It looks like a worthwhile thing to try, but it's not a sure road to riches," Lowe says.
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