The chief executive of Roche has ruled out the likelihood of the Switzerland-based firm getting involved in any major merger activity but more strategic alliances such as its partnership with Genentech are planned.

Speaking at a press briefing in Paris, Franz Humer said that “we are not interested in megamergers or mega-acquisitions”, before adding that “large monolithic research organisations do not create innovation''. He went on to praise the firm’s pact with Genentech, in which Roche has a 56% stake, noting that the fact the US biotechnology giant “can develop their own philosophy, their own culture, is an enormous strength,'' adding that “we are very pleased with the way our relationship with Genentech has developed'' in recent years, and ”we have no intention of changing that relationship.''

“Small, targeted'' deals are what interest Roche most, and Mr Humer said that if the opportunity to create a similar structure to that of the alliance with Genentech presented itself, “the group would certainly do so”. He then went on to express his admiration for the French biotechnology firm Transgene, noting that the companies are collaborating on vaccines against the human papilloma virus, linked to the development of pre-cancerous lesions. Mr Humer then claimed that the technologies used in the field of therapeutic vaccines could be among those that “change the face of science within 10-20 years”.

As for its own specific research efforts, Mr Humer noted that the major restructuring of Roche’s R&D activities around five therapeutic areas, announced in February, would be in place from July 1. The plan involves setting up Disease Biology Areas (DBAs), which will cover the whole range of activities from R&D to strategic marketing in a specific therapeutic field and be located at one site. The five DBAs are oncology (based in Nutley, New Jersey) virology and inflammation (at Palo Alto, California), metabolism and central nervous system (Basel, Switzerland).

The CEO also noted that Roche has got off to an excellent start this year, having posted a 16% rise in first-quarter turnover to 11.4 billion Swiss francs (around $9 billion) and he reiterated the forecast that earnings per share will grow faster than sales this year.

Avastin linked to abnormality in oesophagus

On the negative side for Roche, however, was the news that the firm, in consultation with Health Canada, has issued a warning about its colon cancer drug Avastin (bevacizumab) after its usage was linked to the development of a potentially fatal malformation in the oesophagus.

Roche noted that in a clinical trial conducted in the USA using Avastin in combination with chemotherapy and radiation in patients with small cell lung cancer, there were two confirmed cases of tracheo-esophageal (TE) fistulas reported, one of which resulted in death. A third case that resulted in death was also reported, in which TE fistula was suspected but not confirmed and cases of the latter condition have also been reported in patients using Avastin off-label to treat other types of lung cancer and cancer of the oesophagus.

TB fistula is an abnormal connection in one or more places between the oesophagus and the trachea and normally, the two tubes are separate. The company noted that “a direct cause and effect between Avastin and these events has not been established, but cannot be ruled out” and the drug should no longer be given to patients who develop a TE fistula.