Novartis advances hunt for piece of Roche's growing MS empire

ZURICH (Reuters) – Swiss drugmaker Novartis on Friday threw down the gauntlet at Roche’s multiple sclerosis franchise, touting study results for its MS hopeful ofatumumab that it hopes will muscle in on its crosstown rival’s drug Ocrevus.

Novartis said ofatumumab, already approved as Arzerra to treat leukemia, demonstrated superiority versus Sanofi’s Aubagio in two head-to-head late-stage studies against relapsing forms of MS (RMS). The results are due to be outlined at an MS conference in Sweden next month.

But Novartis’s real target with ofatumumab is Ocrevus, the $2.4 billion-per-year MS blockbuster that Roche has branded its most successful drug launch ever. Novartis plans to start asking health authorities for approvals by year’s end, it said.

Ofatumumab and Ocrevus work similarly by targeting the immune system’s B cells that damage nerve tissue, putting the drugs on a collision course when doctors choose which medicine to prescribe. Novartis touts ofatumumab’s monthly home injections as a convenient option for patients who with Ocrevus get twice-yearly infusions.

“If approved, ofatumumab will potentially become a treatment for a broad RMS population and the first B-cell therapy that can be self-administered at home,” said Novartis, which is re-purposing Arzerra for MS as it seeks to strengthen its neurological drugs business, which already includes older MS drugs Gilenya and recently approved Mayzent.

Across the Rhine River from Novartis’s Basel campus, Roche drugs division head Bill Anderson has countered Novartis’s ofatumumab offensive with a “bring-it-on” approach of his own, suggesting twice-yearly infusions of Ocrevus, as opposed to monthly shots, result in deep B-cell depletions and robust benefits that have helped it capture 17% market share.

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Anderson has bragged that since Novartis’s Mayzent launch in March, Ocrevus has actually gained market share.

Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields


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