The world’s 10 bestselling prescription drugs raked in $75.6bn of sales last year, led by Humira and other treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases.
The majority are now biologics – created by biological processes, rather than being chemically synthesised – with immunotherapy and cancer medicines dominating the top 10, according to figures from EvaluatePharma/EP Vantage.
There has been a reshuffling of the deck in the last couple of years that has seen Pfizer’s relatively cheap mass-market cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor knocked off the top perch after its patent expired.
The new generation of biological drugs tend to target smaller groups of patients but can be much more expensive – a new hepatitis-C treatment, Sovaldi, is currently priced at $1,000 for just one pill. A course of treatment costs $84,000 in the US, or $57,000 in Britain .
IHS analyst Gustav Ando said: “The industry is becoming increasingly involved in biological drugs. We’re seeing a lot of dramatic breakthroughs in the science of biologics.”
Humira’s manufacturer, Chicago-based AbbVie, which split from Abbott Laboratories a year ago, has nearly doubled annual sales of the injectable anti-inflammatory over the past four years, with $10.7bn of sales last year. The drug, which treats rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease was the world’s top seller for the second year running.
It is a different world from 2011 when Lipitor made $10.8bn annual sales for Pfizer, followed by the blood thinner, Plavix from Bristol-Myers Squibb with $9.7bn revenue. That year the world’s top 10 drugs racked up total sales of $77.7bn. Both Lipitor and Plavix have since lost patent protection and sales have been eroded by generic copycat pills.
Lisa Urquhart, editor of EP Vantage, said: “The interesting thing to note is that the majority of the drugs topping the  rankings are biologics, rather than small molecule (chemical) drugs. This isn’t surprising because not only can pharma companies typically charge more for them, they are currently less susceptible to generic competition.”
None of the current 10 top selling drugs has yet come close to generating the $141bn of revenues racked up over its lifetime by Lipitor for US drug giant Pfizer, according to Simon King, executive editor of FirstWord Pharma. Launched in 1996 and prescribed to millions of patients around the world, the cholesterol fighter raked in peak annual sales of nearly $13bn and remains the biggest moneyspinning drug of all time.
Analysts believe Humira could at its peak generate annual sales similar to Lipitor – but it will have a much shorter run. Humira’s patent protection expires in 2016 when it will face competition from copycat developers keen for a slice of booming revenues. Analysts note, though, that it is harder to replicate biological drugs, which tend to be more complex than chemical compounds.
Meanwhile, Sovaldi, the hepatitis C drug made by US biotech firm Gilead Sciences, which was approved in the US late last year, could also give Lipitor a run for its money with forecasts of record-breaking sales of $7-12bn for its first year alone. But US health insurers and the state Medicaid programme have balked at its hefty price tag.
Last year’s top three sellers all treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases – along with Humira is second-placed Enbrel from Amgen and Pfizer and Remicade in third place from Johnson & Johnson and Merck.
Jens Lindqvist, senior life sciences analyst at Singer, said: “Anti-inflammatory biologics have done phenomenally well. There are side effects, but they are highly efficacious and patients are generally happy with them.” – By Julia Kollewe © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – AFP