German family-run drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim has stressed its determination to remain independent and keep its pipeline stocked with innovative products as it posted solid financial results for 2006 at its annual press conference.

Sales advanced 10.9% to 10.57 billion euros, while operating income was 11.3% to 2.14 billion euros, driven by prescription medicine sales which climbed 14.7% to 8.31 billion euros. Once again the stellar performance came from Spiriva (tiotropium bromide) for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which brought in 1.38 billion euros, a 45% increase on the same period of 2005.

Spiriva is one of three blockbusters that Boehringer boasts, the others being the blood pressure drug Micardis (telmisartan), sales of which rose 34% to 967 million euros and Flomax/Alna (tamsulosin) for benign prostatic hyperplasia, which was up 28% to 922 million euros. Also performing well was Sifrol/Mirapex (pramipexole) for Parkinson's disease which benefited from its recent approvals in the USA for restless legs syndrome and enjoyed a 23% hike in sales to 536 million euros.

Mobic mauled by generics

The only blot on Boehringer’s sales landscape was the battering that its anti-inflammatory drug Mobic (meloxicam) got, as the impact of generic competition in the USA made itself felt. Sales of the drug slumped 32% to 579 million euros, as 15 versions of the drug flooded the market, and this figure is set to decline by more than 350 million euros in 2007.

However the firm feels it is equipped to deal with the loss of Mobic revenues and head of finance Marbod Muff told PharmaTimes World News that it is the nature of the business to take such hits when drugs come off-patent. More damaging will be generic competition to Flomax which is due to start in the USA in 2009 and is likely to erode sales of the drug by 600-650 million euros.

The best way to deal with the problem is to make sure the pipeline remains full with innovative drugs and do so in a timely manner, Prof Muff said. He cited the case of Altana Pharma, which was recently sold by its parent group to Nycomed, because it could not come to terms with the patent expiry of its largest product, the gastrointestinal drug pantoprazole, and noted that Boehringer is always on the look-out for interesting preclinical candidates that its research teams can bring through. The firm’s aim is to add 10 development projects to the pipeline every year, “and they must be of high quality,” Prof Muff told PharmaTimes World News.

Pfizer model has failed

It is this strategy that guarantees the company’s future, he said, before going on to claim that the merger and acquisition model embraced by many firms, notably Pfizer, is on its last legs and has proved to a failure. Pfizer bought first products, and then companies, but it has suffered from negative growth over the past couple of years “and now they are laying off staff," he added.

The importance of research was stressed by chairman Alessandro Banchi who said that "we don't buy sales. We buy R&D.” At the moment, Boehringer’s existing products are performing well so “why should we spend our money to add sales we don't need?" However he told PharmaTimes World News that the company is not averse to spending some of its considerable money pile (liquidity of 4 billion euros and cash flow of 2.3 billion euros) if the right opportunity comes along, citing the purchase of the US rights to over-the-counter Zantac (ranitidine) for $510 million in cash from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer at the end of last year.

Speaking of research, Dr Banchi noted that Boehringer spent nearly 1.6 billion euros on R&D last year and 90,000 patients took part in its clinical studies. Highlights of the last-stage pipeline include flibanserin for women with female hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is in Phase III studies, while the oral direct thrombin inhibitor Rendix (dabigatran) has been filed in Europe for the prevention of deep-vein thrombosis in conjunction with hip or knee joint replacements.

He added that the company expects to get approval for the inhalation device Respimat for use with Spiriva, and major Phase III and IV trials are underway looking at the latter drug and Micardis in other new indications, “as we’re convinced that both products still possess therapeutic potential.”

'We are doing opposite' to competition

Not being a slave to the financial markets and investor demands for double-digit growth every quarter gives Boehringer the time to bring these projects to fruition and Dr Banchi and his board revel in the firm’s unique status. When asked whether the company was considering following other drugmakers and cutting its sales force, he told PharmaTimes World News that “whatever the others are doing, we are doing the opposite,” noting that its field force is being added to and has tripled in the last seven years to over 11,000. By Kevin Grogan in Ingelheim