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World's best-selling medicine sees Q3 revenue dip as cancer drug sales surge

AbbVie Inc.'s Humira remains the top-selling medicine in the world in the third quarter, even as increasing competition spurred a 3.7% year-over-year decline in revenue, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of the biggest drugmakers' sales.

North Chicago, Ill.-based AbbVie has seen biosimilars biting into sales of Humira, which is used to treat several forms of arthritis and other immune disorders. AbbVie has been trying to cushion the impact of biosimilar rivals, reaching deals with companies such as Amgen Inc. and Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH to delay the launch of their versions of Humira.

Biosimilars are lower-cost versions of already approved biologic medicines derived from living cells.

In China, Qletli, a Humira biosimilar developed by Guangzhou-based Bio-Thera Solutions Ltd., won approval in November. China's National Healthcare Security Administration, meanwhile, added Humira to its new list of therapies eligible for reimbursement under the government's medical insurance system.

Humira sales still outpaced expectations in the third quarter at $4.94 billion, following better-than-anticipated sales of $4.87 billion during the second quarter.

U.S. drug pricing watchdog the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review cited Humira in a two-year analysis of medicines whose costs were raised even without any new evidence supporting better efficacy.

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Race to beat cancer

Third-quarter sales of cancer therapies rose 18.0% year over year for the companies included in the analysis, reaching $14.78 billion. Merck & Co. Inc.'s Keytruda and Roche Holding AG's Avastin led the list of best-selling cancer treatments.

Keytruda saw a 62.5% annual sales growth rate in the third quarter, exceeding the $3 billion mark for the first time. Keytruda, a type of treatment known as a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, is facing pressure in the non-small cell lung cancer market from therapies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Opdivo and AstraZeneca PLC's Imfinzi.

Keytruda has collected more key approvals for various types of cancer, with recent wins in the EU for head and neck cancer, as well as in the U.S., Australia and Canada simultaneously for endometrial carcinoma.

Merck is also in a race with cancer drug developers in China, the world's second-largest market for pharmaceuticals. Keytruda recently received regulatory stamps in China for two types of lung cancer. A Merck spokesperson told S&P Global Market Intelligence that while the inclusion of Keytruda was discussed as part of the modification process of China's national reimbursement drug list, the medicine was not included in the list updated in November.

Meanwhile, Roche's Genentech Inc. unit brought in $1.83 billion in third-quarter sales for Avastin. Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant known for its oncology medicines, booked sales of $1.64 billion for its blood cancer drug MabThera, also sold as Rituxan, and $1.56 billion for breast cancer therapy Herceptin — a drop of 2.3% and 8.9%, respectively, from the third quarter of 2018. Herceptin and MabThera/Rituxan have biosimilar competitors in Europe.

Oncology will be the main therapeutic focus for over half of large-cap pharma companies by 2022, and sales are forecast to jump by 50% to $128 billion, Jefferies analyst Peter Welford has said.

But the risk of therapeutic crowding is growing at the expense of research into respiratory, cardiovascular and infectious disease, as more companies zero in on the same types of cancer treatments. France's Sanofi, for example, plans to exit diabetes and cardiovascular research and turn to hematology, rare disease, neurology and cancer to bolster its portfolio of new medicines.

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