Merck sets up respiratory business unit

Merck KGaA of Germany has set up a dedicated business to tap into the fast-growing market for respiratory drugs. Part of Merck Generics, the unit will focus on developing new respiratory drugs for diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, using a combination of generic drugs and novel inhaler technologies.

In making the announcement yesterday, Merck also confirmed that it was the previously undisclosed partner for the Clickhaler, a dry powder delivery device developed by UK company Innovata (formerly ML Laboratories). Clickhaler versions of the corticosteroid budesonide for asthma and long-acting beta agonist formoterol for asthma and COPD have already been approved in Europe, and further registrations in other major EU markets are anticipated in the coming months, according to Merck.

The company said the move would allow it to “consolidate its expertise and, thus, to better compete in this strategically important therapeutic area.”

Merck is a long-standing player in the respiratory drugs market, and already has a US subsidiary, Dey, dedicated to specialty generics for asthma and allergies. The new respiratory unit will follow the same sort of model as Dey, according to the German company, with a focus on value-added products delivered via improved delivery systems. This move up the value chain is an emerging feature of the generic market.

The Clickhaler will form an important part of the business‚s early development, but Merck said it also plans to roll out other products based on novel inhalers, with the first applications to market these new devices imminent.

In terms of market share, Merck lags a fair way behind the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, which have strong branded respiratory franchises. But the respiratory sector is growing at around 8% a year at present - faster than almost any other therapeutic category [[15/09/05d]] - and generic medicines are increasingly playing their part in that growth.

Meanwhile, a strong position in respiratory medicines could help Merck keep up with the two leaders in the generic market, Novartis subsidiary Sandoz and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which are threatening to pull away from the following pack after a series of major acquisitions [[26/07/05a]] [[07/06/05e]]. Mindful of this, third-placed Merck recently opened a dedicated generics company in the USA called Genpharm LP [[09/08/05c]].