AstraZeneca shutting asthma drug plant as pipeline shifts to biologics

By Dan Stanton

- Last updated on GMT

AstraZeneca's Westborough, MA facility c/o WATERMAN DESIGN ASSOCIATES, INC.
AstraZeneca's Westborough, MA facility c/o WATERMAN DESIGN ASSOCIATES, INC.

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AstraZeneca has continued the Big Pharma trend away from small molecule blockbusters and towards a biologics-heavy pipeline, announcing the closure of its Pulmicort facility in Massachusetts.

AstraZeneca’s facility in Westborough, Massachusetts, produces commercial quantities of the firm’s asthma drug Pulmicort (budesonide) but the 33-year old site has been earmarked to close next year affecting approximately 180 employees.

Ten years ago​ the site had a workforce of almost 1,300 but this figure has dwindled​ as rival asthma products and impending patent expirations have eaten away at Pulmicort’s sales.

The company told “We did not take this decision lightly, and it was made after careful consideration of our business strategy, market indicators, and the patients and stakeholders we serve globally AstraZeneca’s pipeline.”

Shifting Portfolio

While Westborough begins to wind down, AstraZeneca is pumping $200m (€160m) into a Maryland facility​ run by its biologics division MedImmune, a move that highlights the company’s shifting portfolio.

“Biologics now account for nearly 50 percent of our pipeline,”​ the firm told us, and as the patent cliff sees small molecule drugs like Symbicort, Pulmicort and Seroquel no longer bring in $1bn plus annually, the firm now looks to larger molecule candidates such as its next-generation oncology products focused on immunotherapy, DNA damage repair and antibody drug conjugates (ADCs).

AstraZeneca is not alone in this shift. Bristol-Myers Squibb recently predicted​ biologics would comprise 75% of its portfolio by 2019, while a recent report on Pfizer’s pipeline by ISI analyst Mark Schoenebaum shows further evidence of this shift.

Pfizer is upbeat about its kinase inhibitor breast cancer candidate Palbociclib, a PD-L1 in-licensed from Merck KGaA and several other immuno-oncology drugs in development, including a CAR-T cell product, an IDO inhibitor, an OX-40 antibody, and aCD-137 (4-1BB) antibody, Schoenebaum noted.

Furthermore, the Pharma Giant is developing five biosimilar products including versions of Rituxan, Remicade and Herceptin currently in Phase III trials.

But Pfizer, BMS and AstraZeneca are not the exceptions when it comes to biopharma heavy pieplines, Schoenebaum confirmed to us. “[Pfizer is] pretty much like most of the other companies....they've all turned in this direction.”

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