R&D chiefs at Almirall say the Spanish pharmaceutical firm is pinning its hopes on a new treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as it prepares to show it can compete with the industry giants.

At the official launch of the company’s new R&D facility outside Barcelona, with the King of Spain in attendance, Dr Jose-Luiz Diaz, the head of external research, said "there is a big market for this drug” when asked about the experimental COPD treatment LAS34273.

“COPD has been an area that has been totally disregarded and it’s only in the last three to four years that companies have been taking an active interest in this area.”

He said the company hoped the long-acting bronchodilator would receive worldwide registration by 2010. It is about to enter Phase III trials in around 30 centres across the world.

Phase II studies suggest that the drug has a fast onset of action and provides 24 hours of bronchodilation, with a good safety profile. Almirall has entered into a deal with Forest Laboratories to develop and market the treatment in the USA.

According to the World Health Organization, COPD is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide and the fourth in the USA. Affecting over 12 million adults in the US, it is estimated that a further 24 million are showing some evidence of impaired lung function - suggesting that COPD is under-diagnosed.

The condition is mainly caused by smoking, which causes damage to the airways. The symptoms include coughing, breathlessness, and excess sputum and chest infections.

If LAS34273 comes to market it would sit alongside Almirall products that include the antihistamine Kestine (ebastine) and the antacid Almagate, which has a two-thirds market share in Spain.

Dr Diaz said that by concentrating on its areas of expertise such as inflammatory and respiratory diseases, Almirall could compete with the industry leaders such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. He added that Almirall was constantly looking to work with biotech companies and other firms to increase competitiveness.

He said another product in the pipeline was a topical anti-TNF-alpha treatment for psoriasis, although this was further from the market than LAS34273.

Dr Jorge Gallardo, the chairman and chief executive of Almirall, said that his company’s new research facility at Sant Feliu de Llobregat, near Barcelona would enable the firm to dramatically improve its research competitiveness. “The Sant Feliu centre represents the future projection of Almirall’s research tradition built up over more than 40 years.”

He said that Almirall was planning to invest €750 million ($965m) on R&D over the next five years. Almirall is currently the 36th ranked pharmaceutical firm in Europe. Worldwide sales in 2005 were €962.