Analysts demand news on next Lilly blockbuster

Eli Lilly and Co. spends a lot of time these days telling the rest of the story—how well it’s doing in areas not connected to highly lucrative drugs about to see their patents expire. But for the most part, investors and analysts just want to know when the next blockbuster will be coming.

That was certainly the case Monday morning, when analysts peppered Lilly’s R&D chief Jan Lundberg with questions about Lilly’s experimental Alzheimer’s medicine, solanezumab.

Lundberg fielded four questions about the drug during a one-hour conference call. At one point he chuckled and replied, “I appreciate your interest in solanezumab. It certainly could be a tremendous agent for patients with Alzheimer’s.”

Indeed, as no existing medicine does more than temporarily mask the symptoms of Alzheimer's, a drug that actually halts progression of the disease would be a monumental breakthrough. Some analysts have pegged the sales potential at $5 billion a year.

Only a drug of that magnitude could really offset the massive revenue Lilly will lose to patent expirations in the next three years. Three key drugs—Zyprexa, Cymbalta and Evista—will face competition from generic copies between now and 2014. Lilly will lose the lion’s share of those drugs' sales, which last year was a combined $9.5 billion.

In addition, Lilly lost patent protection late last year on its cancer drug Gemzar, which brought in another $1 billion a year.

Linda Bannister, a pharmaceutical analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis, cited Lilly’s Alzheimer’s program and an experimental cholesterol drug, known as a CETP inhibitor, as its best shots at new blockbusters.

“Those are the things that really come to mind that could be game changers, if successful,” she said.

But both are high-risk ventures. Lilly was embarrassed late last summer when another experimental Alzheimer’s drug failed spectacularly in a late-stage clinical trial, actually worsening some patients’ condition. Lilly halted the trial of that medicine, semagacestat.

Lundberg said Monday that Lilly was seeing better safety results in its clinical trials of solanezumab.

“What I can say is that the safety profile so far in these trials looks better than for semagacestat, and there are actually less patients that have stopped the trials because of safety issues,” Lundberg said.

Lilly expects final data from its clinical trials to be available in mid-2012.

Even so, the company has no chance of bringing new drugs to market in time to substantially offset its looming revenue loss over the next few years.

“That’s clearly not going to be the case,” Bannister said, adding, “It’s going to be a little too late.”

Instead, Lilly is letting its profit drop—by as much as 12 percent this year. And many analysts don’t expect profits to grow anytime before 2015.

In the meantime, the company is trying to woo investors by talking about its rapid growth rates in Japan and China, as well as in its animal health business. Those three areas experienced first-quarter sale growth of 34 percent, 23 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

Those are impressive rates. But combined sales in those business areas were $3.4 billion last year—about one-seventh of Lilly’s overall revenue.

“Our clients are interested in the emerging markets story. We believe that could be an engine for growth,” Bannister said. “But that’s more of a long-term story. It’s really the near-term challenges that everyone is focused on.”

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