Merck Serono CEO Eyes Asia for Growth in Cancer, Fertility Drugs

Merck KGaA is increasing investment in existing products for cancer and fertility in emerging markets while waiting for its drug pipeline to mature, said Belen Garijo, head of its prescription drug unit.

There’s “significant growth potential” for fertility products such as Gonal-f in China, where the government is easing its one-child rule, as well as in Turkey and Russia, Merck Serono CEO Garijo said in an interview. The Darmstadt, Germany-based drug maker also plans to “fully exploit” cancer drug Erbitux in Asia, particularly for head-and-neck cancer in Japan and China where smoking rates are high.

“We’re rightly prioritizing our focus on medications with the best benefit to patients,” Garijo said. “Bringing the right focus is actually an obsession.”

The former Sanofi executive joined Merck in 2011 during a restructuring of the family-held company where more than a third of its top executives were replaced. At Serono, the prescription drug division that accounts for more than half of Merck’s sales, 1,100 jobs in Germany were cut and the former headquarters in Geneva was shuttered.

MS Therapy

Erbitux, which was first approved in 2003, was one of the last drugs Merck brought to market. Since then there have been several drug development failures, including cladribine for multiple sclerosis. Merck will continue to cull development programs, Garijo said, and will announce whether it plans to enter multiple sclerosis therapy ONO-4641 into late-stage trials when it reports fourth-quarter results on March 6.

While the company isn’t planning any new studies of Erbitux, Garijo pointed out that a recent analysis of clinical trials showed patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer who took Erbitux in combination with chemotherapy lived an average of a month longer than those who received chemotherapy alone. Merck withdrew an application to market the drug to this group of lung cancer patients in Europe in 2012 after regulators asked for more data.

Erbitux has been approved in Japan for head-and-neck cancer and is still in the registration process for the indication in China. The company is also developing what Garijo calls a “super Erbitux” dubbed Sym004, which Merck licensed from Symphogen A/S in 2012. Sym004 and Erbitux are both designed to work on a subset of patients who carry a normal form of a gene called KRAS and the company believes that Sym004 may be effective.

Merck is scouting acquisitions in the U.S., particularly in oncology, to beef up its pipeline, Garijo said.

“Our aspiration is to become a significant player in highly-specialized diseases and a leading player in emerging markets,” she said.