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Roche shuffles early stage pipeline as it joins obesity rush

Roche is reshaping its early-stage pipeline of experimental drugs, jettisoning eight drug candidates in neurological conditions and oncology as it makes room for a set of obesity treatments it gained with its $2.7 billion acquisition of Carmot Therapeutics.

The Swiss drugmaker is dropping two Alzheimer’s drugs, including the longtime asset crenezumab; a drug it had tested in both autism and post-traumatic stress disorder; and two projects for rare neurological disorders. Three Phase 1 cancer candidates also were shelved.

The eight drugs removed are being replaced by an equal number, spread across obesity, cancer and autoimmune disorders, to “increase the overall portfolio value and speed up development,” Roche said in a presentation alongside its fourth quarter and full year earnings announcement. 

The three drugs from the Carmot transaction all act on a metabolic target that increases insulin production called GLP-1, which Novo Nordisk and other drugmakers have sold for more than a decade to treat diabetes. More recently, sales in this drug class have quickly grown as they have a powerful effect on weight loss – Novo’s drug Wegovy is prescribed for obese people, and its diabetes drug Ozempic is also used off-label.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has estimated a market as big as $90 billion by early in the 2030s, while analysts from the investment banking firm Raymond James put it at around $80 billion to $90 billion by the end of the decade.

Carmot’s two Phase 2 drugs, both injectables, also act on a second metabolic target called GIP, similar to diabetes and obesity drugs Eli Lilly markets called Mounjaro and Zepbound, which contain the same active ingredient. A third drug from its pipeline acts solely on GLP-1 but is an oral agent.

Roche also made a clear statement of intent in inflammatory diseases, making room for an ulcerative colitis drug it gained with the $7.1 billion takeout of Televant, along with a Phase 1 lupus drug called RG6382.

The pipeline shifts come as Roche looks for a spark to its business. Group sales rose 1% in 2023 to 58.7 billion Swiss francs ($65.3 billion) as income from COVID-19 treatment Ronapreve, which it developed with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, evaporated, and COVID diagnostics revenue also took a hit.

Executives are forecasting “mid-single digit” sales growth for 2024, as COVID-19 sales volatility appears to be over. That sales growth will come on top of a continued decline for products that have lost patent protection, such as Avastin, Herceptin and Lucentis, which will amount to 1.6 billion francs.