A Novartis AG employee walks past equipment in a research lab at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) campus in Shanghai. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Novartis Cuts 20% of Drug-Research Projects After Review

(Bloomberg) -- Novartis AG has dropped about a fifth of its research projects as the drugmaker narrows its focus on the most cutting-edge medicines.

The pharmaceutical giant has reduced its drug programs to 340 from 430 after completing a review of its portfolio, Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, said in an interview Monday. Among the research projects it’s no longer pursuing are medicines for infectious diseases.

“The sadness about these 90 projects is there’s some great science there,” Bradner said. “These are not bad ideas. Many of them have momentum, but they either are not likely to be transformative for patients, or are ill-suited to the focused business ambitions of Novartis.”

The decisions are a sign of Chief Executive Officer Vas Narasimhan’s effort to make the Swiss drugmaker more competitive as development costs climb and big pharma’s returns on investments decline. They also come amid broader scrutiny of the industry’s pipelines. Drugmakers including GlaxoSmithKline Plc have pruned their portfolios in a bid to boost efficiency and deliver medicines that significantly improve patients’ health.

“Society should expect Novartis to bring forward truly impactful, truly differentiated, truly important medicines for patients with life-threatening diseases,” said Bradner, who joined Novartis in 2016 from Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The company is looking to expand in areas including cell and gene therapies to build on its purchase of drugmaker AveXis Inc. earlier this year and the rollout of its breakthrough cancer treatment Kymriah.

Some of the research projects it’s shedding will be developed by other companies, while others will be halted or will “need to sit on the shelf for a little while,” he said. Novartis announced a retreat from antibiotic development earlier this year, joining drugmakers including AstraZeneca Plc in moving away from a field with poor financial returns. The Swiss company earlier this month licensed three programs that could potentially meet the need for new drugs to treat antibiotic-resistant infections to Boston Pharmaceuticals.

Bayer AG’s pharma unit is conducting its own review, called “Super Bowl,” which aims to bring research and development operations under one roof. The goal is to increase the unit’s productivity and get new treatments to patients faster, spokesman Oliver Renner said by phone. Glaxo’s new research chief, Hal Barron, said in July that the company had made 65 decisions to terminate, divest or partner up on drug development programs since April 2017.

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