The logic of biologics

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar


Biologics have long been the great hope in the fight against non-communicable diseases. Cancer, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental health account for 63% of all deaths world-wide. According to a 2011 World Economic Forum report, these diseases will cost some $47 trillion in lost global output over the next two decades. Unsurprisingly, biologics are grabbing an increasing share of the blockbuster drugs market; in 2014 they represented six of the world’s 10 best-selling pharmaceuticals.

Unlike conventional chemical-based drugs, biologics are organic and consist of larger molecules, with thousands of times more atoms. Their greater complexity, however, means that “the regulatory pathway is more cumbersome,” notes Ranjith Gopinathan, program manager, life sciences in the European health-care practice of Frost & Sullivan, a global market research and consulting firm. Of the 41 new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014, only 11 were biologics.

Never the less, biologic drugs that have been approved have made a huge and rapid impact. Take Sofosbuvir (sold by Gilead as Solvaldi), an anti-viral medication that helps cure hepatitis C. With some 150 million sufferers world-wide, the drug became a global best seller within its first year on the market.

One of the hottest areas in biologics is the development of monoclonal antibodies. These mimic the body’s natural antibodies and have proven to be particularly effective in cancer treatment. They can make cancer cells more visible to the immune system, block growth signals, prevent new blood vessel formation in tumors, and deliver radiation or chemotherapy to cancer cells.

Trastuzumab (sold by Roche as Herceptin), for example, is a monoclonal antibody that targets the HER2+ receptor in breast cancer, a genetic variation found in 15% of  breast cancer patients. When used with other chemotherapy drugs, Herceptin increases survival rates 37%. Roche has come up with other biologics—pertuzumab (sold as Perjeta) and trastuzumab emtasine (sold as Kadcyla)—that can further improve Herceptin’s results, says Barbara Gilmore, a senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

Close lookAnother monoclonal antibody, launched on the U.S. market in March 2015, is dinutuximab, (marketed by United Therapeutics as  Unituxin). Containing mouse and human components, it helps the immune system find and destroy cancer cells by targeting a substance found on the surface of neuroblastoma tumor cells. Neuroblastoma cancer starts in the nervous system and typically afflicts children under five.

Monoclonal antibodies are key to the success of targeted therapeutics, a process that attacks diseases without affecting healthy cells and tissues. Meanwhile, advances in companion diagnostics and genetic profiling would bolster personalized medicine.

“The growth will be in personalized medicine and targeted therapeutics,” says Mr. Gopinathan. “More efficient drug-development processes based on the disease pathophysiology and genetic risk factors would be game-changers in the industry.” He predicts: “Biologics will continue to outpace overall pharma growth.”

Another promising growth area lies in non-brand versions of biologics, known as “biosimilars.” These are analogous to the $261 billion generic drugs market that replicates conventional drugs whose patents have expired.

One such biosimilar, developed by Novartis, is Zarxio , a version of Amgen’s filgrastim (sold as Neupogen), which helps prevent infection during chemotherapy. Amgen is also developing six of its own biosimilar drugs.  “Here’s a biotech company that makes biotech drugs, and even though they have a robust pipeline, they’re also making biosimilars,” says Ms. Gilmore. “It’s very smart. There’s money to be made there.”

Frost & Sullivan forecases a 60% compound annual growth in the biosimilar market between 2012 and 2019. A RAND Corp. study estimates  that biosimilars could reduce spending on biologic drugs in the U.S. by $44 billion over the next decade, while Spain’s University of the Basque Country forecasts €20 billion savings in Europe through 2020.

iStock_000029461972_SmallHowever, getting biosimilars into the market remains a major challenge. Biologics’ complexity makes them hard to replicate because they use biological processes or living organisms to create the drugs’ molecules.

The European Union has approved only 19 biosimilar drugs since 2006, and the U.S. approved its first biosimilar, Zarxio, in March 2015. Herceptin lost its patent protection last year in Europe and will lose its U.S. patent in 2019, but no biosimilars have yet been approved in those jurisdictions, an indication of how difficult the process is.

Moreover, unlike generics, biosimilars are not much cheaper than their originals to produce. Mr. Gopinathan calculates that “the price reduction is, at most, 30%.” Health care’s great hope will still come at a price.


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.


Photos courtesy of iStock

Sharing Energy in the City: 2030

By Aurelien

With the development of decentralized electricity and energy production, the sharing of energy between citizens, industries and public institutions will certainly reshape our relationship to energy in our everyday life. With this in mind, French electric utility company EDF decided to launch the prospective challenge “Sharing Energy in the City, 2030” in order to stimulate interdisciplinary innovations and to foster international opportunities dealing with this major and inspiring issue which affects us all.

Watch the video below to learn more about this initiative:

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If you are keen on the urbanization, energy and sustainability topics and working as a researcher or postgraduate student from a lab/school/university/incubator/cluster (or if you know someone in those fields), then this challenge is a fantastic opportunity to bring your project to life!  :D

6000€ in Prizes will be awarded to the most innovative and collaborative projects, but more importantly, a 6-month work placement, connection with key stakeholders and funding for your project from EDF are the real rewards of this Challenge.

All details regarding the expectations can be found on the dedicated website and Community “Sharing Energy in the City, 2030“. You can also tweet questions to @Challenge_2030. Don’t wait too long, the deadline for applications is March 31, 2014!

Sporting Virtual Reality

By Kate

So far as part of our spring series on Virtual Reality, I’ve shared interviews with VR software and equipment specialists. How about some perspective from a VR scientific researcher? And even better, one exploring VR and sports? ;-)

Here’s an interview with researcher Daniel Mestre, member of the French Association of Virtual Reality and head of the “Immersions Group” at the Marseille Institute of Movement Sciences, CNRS and Univmed.

Questions I asked:

  1. What work are you doing with virtual reality and sports?
  2. Who are the people who will benefit the most from this work, athletes, doctors or sports equipment manufacturers?
  3. Do you think that sports will evolve to a level where athletes use VR applications while exercising their activity?
  4. What’s the future of virtual reality? (My pet comparison question.)

Here’s the translation/transcription:

Q1: What work are you doing with virtual reality and sports?

We want to understand how athletes behave, and we use virtual reality to create situations where we can study human behavior in sports. That’s the fundamental aspect. More precisely, we’re studying virtual training for athletes. And we’re also exploring how, through virtual reality, we can inspire men and women who aren’t physically active to exercise again.

This is a VR topic that’s pretty developed now, especial in Anglophone countries like the US, and it’s starting to spread in Europe. Here we’re trying to couple, for example, gym equipment with virtual content that motivates people to get active. We’re starting to orient our work targeting obese populations to help motivate them to get in shape.

For example, is it more motivating for someone to distract them from the exercise at hand? Or is it more motivating to encourage them with biofeedback? Virtual reality is interesting for these classic questions because it allows us to externally study a process that’s typically internal.

Q2: Who are the people who will benefit the most from this work, athletes, doctors or sports equipment manufacturers?

I think it’s all three. We need doctors to help us develop a process of re-adaptation. It would be illusory to think that by magic virtual reality will resolve our problems. Equipment manufacturers are interested in the work to help them bring new products to market. I think athletes are already benefiting from it. For example we’re working on a project about virtual cycling training. A cyclist living in a flat desert region can virtually train for an upcoming race in the mountains, although this remains elitist.

There’s a fourth group of beneficiaries to our work and that’s coaches/teachers, students and people developing VR sports applications. A big part of our activity is working with physical education students, exposing them to the possibilities that virtual reality and training provide.

Q3: Do you think that sports will evolve to a level where athletes use VR applications while exercising their activity?

I’d say we’re not there yet, but then again we’ve already introduced it as video arbitrage during ball games. Otherwise we’re starting to see athletic trainers explore using virtual reality for coaching team sports, although it’s an old idea for us. So rather than drawing positions and strategies on a chalkboard, they’ll produce them virtually.

But are we going to invent virtual sports disciplines? I don’t know how to answer that question today.

Q4: What’s the future of virtual reality?

It’s brilliant and polymorph!

Merci Daniel!

Stay tuned for more . . .



P.S. If you’re new to our series, previous posts include:

Virtual Reality Series: Interviews & I Spy
Live from Laval Virtual Day 1: R-Screen
Day 2 @ Laval Virtual = Fire
Day 3 @ Laval Virtual: Ergo Wide 3
Equipping Our VR Future

P.P.S. You may also enjoy this VR sports application: Spinning into Virtual Reality