Industry news, March 2012

Business roundup



PHARMACEUTICAL

Collaboration for neglected tropical diseases

A group of 13 pharma companies, three national governments and several global health organisations has come together to target 10 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) with $785 million (?497 million) in R&D funding. The group aims to ’accelerate progress toward eliminating or controlling [this set of NTDs] by the end of the decade’. It includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will contribute $363 million over five years .   

 

Pharma acquisitions slowdown 

Pharma industry ’deal making activity’ fell by 18% in 2011 as companies struggled to reduce R&D costs and mitigate loss of sales associated with patent expiries, according to data from advisory firm PharmaVentures. But many companies nonetheless bought others, with the value of such purchases rising 30%. Oncology deals were particularly popular, with Roche the most prolific deal maker. 

 

Amgen buys Micromet

US biotech Amgen has bought German biotech Micromet for $1.16 billion in cash. Amgen will gain blinatumomab, a bi-specific T cell engager antibody in Phase II trials for treating leukaemia. Micromet is also investigating the use of blinatumomab for treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other blood conditions. The move builds on a €695 million (?600 million) licensing deal struck between biotech Amgen and Micromet in July 2011. 

 

Watson consolidates generics position

US generics company Watson has bought Australian company Ascent Pharmahealth for A$375 million (?240 million). Ascent specialises in generics, consumer skincare products and over the counter medicines, and Watson says that the move makes it the fifth largest generics company in Australia based on sales and gives it a significant presence in south-east Asia. Ascent employs 300 people in Australia and south-east Asia, and across those two regions the company made A$150 million in sales in 2011. Watson says that in Australia the market for generics is growing 8% per year.

 

Merck strikes deal with Threshold

 

Apotex settles with Sanofi over generic Plavix 

Canadian generics firm Apotex has paid $442 million in damages to Sanofi and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) for patent infringement relating to blood thinner Plavix (clopidogrel). The payment follows an October 2011 ruling in favour of Sanofi and BMS and marks the end of a decade long legal dispute between the companies. Apotex launched a generic version of Plavix in 2006 when the drug was generating sales of about $4 billion per year but it was forced to halt sales shortly afterwards when the courts granted an injunction. 

 

Lilly pays out over Zyprexa marketing 

A US court has approved a proposed $4.5 million payment by Eli Lilly to settle claims of improper marketing of antipsychotic Zyprexa (olanzapine) by a group of healthcare providers, according to news reports. The group says that the action by Lilly increased costs. The ruling means that the claims can be handled as one ’class action’ rather than multiple cases. Zyprexa is a former big seller that is now facing generic erosion following the loss of patent protection in 2011.  

 

Injection for diabetes R&D 

Danish pharma company Novo Nordisk, which specialises in insulin products, says it is to establish a type 1 diabetes R&D centre in Seattle, US. The centre will open this summer, employing 20 researchers led by Matthias von Herrath, currently director of the Center for Type 1 Diabetes Research at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology. The company says that there has been ’a lack of major scientific progress’ in this area over the last decade - type 2 diabetes has drawn the focus owing to the dramatic rise in the number of people living with the disease, which is closely linked with obesity. 

 

James Murdoch to withdraw from GSK board

News Corporation chair and chief executive James Murdoch is to leave the board of UK pharma company GlaxoSmithKline after three years. Specifically, he will not stand for re-election at the 2012 annual general meeting. GSK chair Christopher Gent said that Murdoch had made the decision to ’focus on his current duties as non-executive chair of BSkyB’. In recent months, James Murdoch, alongside his father - media mogul Rupert Murdoch - has been deeply involved in the Leveson inquiry, an ongoing UK investigation into the culture, practices and ethics of the media. In particular, Lord Justice Leveson is concentrating on the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians; and the controversial practice of phone hacking.

 

Leo’s skin cancer gel approved

Privately owned Danish pharma company Leo Pharma has won US approval for anticancer treatment Picato gel (ingenol mebutate). Specifically, the gel has been approved for treating actinic keratosis, which causes red scaly skin lesions as a result of sun exposure and can lead to non-melanoma skin cancer. Leo, which specialises in dermatology, acquired Picato when it bought Australian firm Peplin in 2009 for A$350 million. 

 

BTG wins its first approval for Voraxaze 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Voraxaze (glucarpidase) from UK company BTG. The drug is based on a carboxypeptidase enzyme and eliminates toxic levels of the chemotherapy drug methotrexate in the blood of patients whose kidneys fail during treatment. Voraxaze breaks down methotrexate into metabolites that can be cleared more easily via the liver. The drug was granted approval under priority review, a designation that is given to therapies that offer major advances in treatment or provide a treatment where there is no adequate alternative therapy. According to BTG, this is the first treatment that the firm has taken through to approval in the US. 

 

AZ and BMS diabetes drug rejected 

The news was less good for Astrazeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb though, as the FDA rejected their application for diabetes drug dapagliflozin. The FDA response cites a need for more safety data (possibly involving new clinical trials), highlighting a small but significant increased risk of bladder and breast cancer in patients taking the drug. Dapagliflozin inhibits sodium-glucose cotransporter 2, which helps reabsorb glucose in the kidney that would otherwise end up in urine. Inhibiting it, therefore, lowers blood glucose levels. The drug is part of a new family of drugs in trials exploiting this mechanism of action. Johnson & Johnson’s canagliflozin is in Phase II trials. 

 

Dimebon bombs out

Pfizer and Medivation have finally abandoned development of Dimebon (latrepirdine) after a string of poor trial performances. The drug caused a stir in 2009 when it promised a new mechanism of action for treating Alzheimer’s disease. But subsequent trials have failed to show statistically significant results and the companies have decided to pull the plug on developing the drug for all indications. ’We recognize Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease,’ said Steven Romano, head of Pfizer’s medicines development group. ’Despite this disappointing result, Pfizer remains committed to advancing the science of Alzheimer’s disease, with the ultimate goal of delivering innovative and meaningful new treatment options to patients.’ 

 

CHEMICAL

World’s biggest PEM fuel cell at Solvay

European chemical giant Solvay says that it has commissioned ’the largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell in the world’ at its SolVin site in Antwerp, Belgium.

Fuel cells generate energy through electrochemical oxidation of energy rich compounds - most commonly hydrogen gas. The process is typically more efficient than burning the fuel because the stored chemical energy is tapped directly and converted into electrical energy without first becoming thermal energy.

In a PEM fuel cell, the electrolyte between the two electrodes is a polymer designed to conduct protons while remaining impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen.

The Solvay fuel cell has a 1MW capacity and runs on hydrogen generated at the site as a by-product. The company says it already generated over 500MWh of electricity after 800 hours of operation. The fuel cell incorporates a range of Solvay products: the membrane electrodes are made of perfluorosulfonic acid from SolviCore, a 50:50 joint venture of Solvay and Belgian precious metals company Umicore. In addition, Umicore supplied the platinum catalyst.

SolVin is a vinyl products joint venture of Solvay, which represents 75%, and German chemical giant BASF, which represent 25%. The hydrogen at the Antwerp site comes from electrolysis of brine as part of the chloralkali process.

Andrew Turley

 

AkzoNobel launches coatings collaboration

 

Dow joins Turkish nanotube venture 

Dow has signed a deal to create a joint venture with Turkish acrylic company Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii to make carbon fibre composite products. Dow says that the global market for such products is $10 billion and it is expected to reach $40 billion by 2022. Each company will have a 50% stake in the joint venture, which will represent $1 billion of investment within five years and create up to 1000 jobs. 

 

Greener leather from Clariant 

Swiss speciality chemical company Clariant has developed a chemical process for tanning leather that it says uses 80% less salt and 50% less water than traditional tanning processes making it simpler, safer and more environmentally friendly. The company says it represents the first ’fundamental’ advance in tanning for 125 years. The EasyWhite Tan process is based on an ’organic self-reactive compound’ developed by Clariant. It is suitable for shoe upper leather and automotive upholstery, which are currently dependent on chrome-free aldehyde processes.

 

Eastman snaps up Solutia

US chemical company Eastman has bought Solutia for $4.7?billion. The move will strengthen Eastman’s presence in emerging markets, particularly the Asia Pacific market. It will also save the two companies $100 million per year through ’cost synergies’. Solutia was spun off from agrichemical giant Monsanto in 1997. It employs 3400 people in the production of a wide range of chemical products, including synthetic rubber, polymers and coatings. 

 

BASF backs its agrichemical pipeline... 

 

...and integrates toluene diisocyanate manufacturing 

 

Dow tops out solar centre 

Just a week after announcing that its new European distribution centre has been completed, US silicones and silicon-technology giant Dow Corning has also completed construction of its new research and development facility in Seneffe, Belgium. The €9 million investment is intended to advance the company’s research in solar cell efficiency and new silicon-based materials. The Solar Energy Exploration and Development (SEED) complex is designed as a showcase for some of Dow’s energy efficient technologies, and already houses some lab equipment. Dow Corning expects research activities to start in the first half of 2012. 

 

Westlake Chemical rebuffed by Georgia Gulf 

US chemical company Georgia Gulf has rejected a $1.1 billion takeover bid from Westlake Chemical. Earlier this month, Westlake said it would buy the firm for $30 per share. But the Georgia Gulf board described the bid as ’financially inadequate and not in the best interest of Georgia Gulf stockholders’. Georgia Gulf makes chlorovinyl and aromatic chemicals, as well as vinyl-based construction products. Westlake makes petrochemicals, polymers and construction products. 

 

Inpex and Total invest down under 

Japanese group Inpex and French oil group Total have signed off a $34 billion investment in liquefied natural gas (LNG) activities in Australia. The project will involve developing the Ichthys gas field, off the northwest coast of Australia, and constructing a 900km gas pipeline together for transporting the gas to the onshore LNG plant near Darwin in the Northern Territory. The project will start producing LNG at the end of 2016. The two LNG plants will each have a capacity of 4.2 million tons per year, making them among the biggest in the world. The move means that by 2017 Australia will have overtaken Qatar as the top LNG exporter.

 

GREENTECH

Renewable Energy Group floats to fuel expansion

The largest producer of biodiesel in the US, Renewable Energy Group, has gone public with an initial public offering aimed at raising $7.2 million (?4.6 million). The company says it plans to use the money to optimise and grow its biodiesel business, but also to diversify into renewable chemicals and additional advanced biofuels, and to expand internationally. The company produces biodiesel from low cost feedstocks, including inedible animal fat, used cooking oil and inedible corn oil. As such it believes it has an advantage over other biodiesel producers, particularly those that rely on higher cost virgin vegetable oils, such as soybean oil. 

 

Novozymes buys into seaweed chemicals 

Danish industrial enzymes company Novozymes is to collaborate with Indian start-up Sea6 Energy on enzymes for making fuel ethanol, fine chemicals and proteins from seaweed. Sea6 specialises in growing seaweed offshore in large quantities with low costs. According to Novozymes, seaweed represents an attractive source of raw materials because more than half of its dry mass is sugar. Furthermore, it grows fast, doesn’t need irrigation or fertiliser and doesn’t take up arable land. 

 

Fracking ignites public reactions 

A record number of comments have been sent to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regarding a revised proposal to allow horizontal hydraulic fracking in the state. Over 40,000 comments were registered, a spokeswoman told the New York Times, compared with 13,000 comments attracted by the original draft in 2009, indicating the strength of public opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, in the UK, fracking is also proving unpopular with the public. After exploratory drilling in Preston, Lancashire, was suspended after minor earth tremors, villagers from Balcombe in West Sussex turned on representatives of multinational oil and gas company Cuadrilla at a public meeting. The firm has acquired an exploration and development licence from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but the meeting, which began with a video about fracking pollution in the US, ended with furious reactions from residents.

 

BASF backs Li-S batteries

German chemical major BASF has paid $50 million for a stake in privately owned US company Sion Power, which specialises in lithium-sulfur (Li-S) batteries. The move builds on a partnership started in 2009 for developing Li-S battery technology for high-energy applications, in particular electric vehicles. Sion describes itself as the global leader in the technology. Researchers say Li-S batteries could prove better than current lithium ion batteries in many applications because of higher energy density and the low cost of sulfur, an abundant by-product of many industrial processes. However, commercialisation is currently hampered by low stability and efficiency. 

 

India invests in clean energy

Investment in clean energy projects in India hit $10.3 billion in 2011 representing a 52% increase compared with the previous year, according to information from data analysis firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The growth was driven by a seven-fold increase in funding for grid connected solar projects: from $600 million in 2010 to $4.2 billion in 2011. The analysts add that there is room for further expansion: ’in 2011, India accounted for 4% of global investment in clean energy.’ 

 

DSM joins ethanol venture

Netherlands life and material sciences company DSM has signed a deal with US ethanol manufacturer Poet to create a $250 million joint venture. The new entity, Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels, will start producing cellulosic ethanol from corn crop residue in the second half of 2013. The plant will use enzyme hydrolysis followed by fermentation to produce the fuel, and have the capacity to produce 25?million gallons per year. The two parent companies will each have a 50% stake in it. 

 

IN BRIEF

Valeant buys Probiotica

Canadian pharma company Valeant has bought Brazilian food supplements firm Probiotica Laboratorios for BRL150 million (?55?million). Valeant says that Probiotica has a 30% share of the Brazilian supplements market.  

 

Pfizer recalls contraceptive pills

Pfizer has recalled hundreds of packs of birth control pills in the US, after it discovered a ’packaging error’ that could leave women ’without adequate contraception and at risk of unintended pregnancy’. The recall affects 28 lots of norgestrel and ethinyl oestradiol pills. The company says that the error does not pose any immediate health risks. 

 

Thumbs down for Prochieve

A US FDA advisory panel has decided against recommending for marketing Columbia Laboratories and Watson Pharmaceuticals’ gel, Prochieve, for reducing the risk of premature birth, based on its review. At the time of going to press, the final FDA decision had yet to be announced, but it is now unlikely that the candidate, which contains progesterone, will be approved. 

 

GSK expands in Australia

GlaxoSmithKline is planning to invest A$60 million (?41 million) in its site at Boronia in Victoria, Australia, creating 58 new jobs by 2017. The site manufactures a range of drugs and related products, including sterile liquids. The investment will increase manufacturing capacity and create a pilot plant for new products developed through the ongoing collaboration with the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 

 

Job cuts at Alnylam

US biotech Alnylam is planning to cut one third of its workforce. According to the 2010 annual report, the company employed 172 people, including 142 researchers, at the start of 2011. Based on those figures, around 57 people now face redundancy. Alnylam specialises in drugs based on RNA interference. 

 

GM cotton gets US go-ahead

Bayer has won US approval for its TwinLink genetic modification for cotton. The modification gives cottons plants two special traits: resistance to caterpillars and tolerance of glufosinate ammonium herbicides. When released commercially, the modification will be stacked with the GlyTol modification, which confers glyphosate tolerance. 

 

Lighting up the car industry 

BASF’s Future Business subsidiary has teamed up with Philips to develop organic light emitting diode (OLED) lights for cars, built into transparent roof panels. But as well as ’allowing the driver to enjoy a unique open-space feeling’ during the day and illuminating the vehicle at night, the panels will incorporate transparent thin film solar cells to generate electricity. 

 

Asahi embraces Crystal healing 

US company Crystal IS, which specialises in antimicrobial LED technology, is to become a subsidiary of Japanese semiconductor device manufacturer Asahi Kasei. The companies have not disclosed financial details. The Crystal?IS technology uses UVC light, which falls in the 200-280nm wavelength range and is therefore more energetic than UVA and UVB, making it capable of killing microbes by destroying DNA. 

 

Indorama buys Old World 

Thai polymer manufacturer Indorama is to buy the chemical business of privately owned US company Old World Industries. The consumer products business of Old World Industries, comprising antifreeze, automotive oils and other automotive products, will continue as a separate entity. The deal is worth $795 million, according to news reports.