West Coast Editor
SAN FRANCISCO - You might call Sepracor Inc. a "sleeper" company, in part for its recently approved insomnia drug and in part for its history, which has been eventful, noted CEO Timothy Barberich, pointing out that times have not always been this good.
Marlborough, Mass.-based Sepracor has "transformed itself and reinvented itself a number of times," Barberich told investors here during a presentation at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.
"That wasn't very easy, but it was exciting, and along the way we've had more than our share of near-death experiences," he said, next quoting Winston Churchill's famous remark that "nothing can be more exhilarating than having been shot at without success."
Analysts certainly aren't sniping much at Sepracor these days. Cory Davis with JPMorgan called the company his top stock pick, largely on the strength of Lunesta (eszopiclone, formerly known as Estorra) approved in December, just in time for almost a full 2005 of sales. Davis said Lunesta is expected to hit the market "in the next couple of weeks."
Davis said physicians polled by JPMorgan predicted a "dramatic increase in the market for these [insomnia] agents," and the doctors forecast that Lunesta would lead the market in two years.
Wednesday, Sepracor disclosed results from a 10-week, 545-patient trial testing Lunesta in patients with insomnia and depression, and found that those getting the drug along with the anti-depressant Prozac (fluoxetine, from Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co.) were less likely to get more depressed than those given Prozac plus placebo.
Sepracor's stock (NASDAQ:SEPR) closed Wednesday at $61, up 2 cents.
Labeled for sleep onset and maintenance, Lunesta is going up against Ambien (zolpidem), from Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis Group, which is indicated for sleep onset only. An extended-release version of Lunesta for sleep maintenance is under FDA review. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 17, 2004.)
Ambien dominates the branded market, Barberich pointed out, but takes about half the prescriptions overall, with a big share also grabbed by trazodone, sold as Desyrel by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., of New York.
Sepracor almost tripled its sales force for the Lunesta launch, ending in March the co-promotion deal with the Ross Products division of Abbott Laboratories, of Abbott Park, Ill., for the asthma therapy Xopenex. The approvable letter for Lunesta also came that month. (See BioWorld Today, March 26, 2004.)
Barberich said talented salespeople were recruited by way of the "immigrant theory." That is, personnel with five to eight years experience in their territories "see an opportunity [such as that offered by Sepracor] to latch on to a company with a big drug or a big pipeline" and jump ship from big-pharma companies.
Earlier this week, Sepracor disclosed its first collaboration with a biotech firm, Acadia Pharmaceuticals Inc., of San Diego. Sepracor is buying $20 million in equity and paying up to $75 million, as the two firms work on coming up with new therapies for central nervous system disorders. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 12, 2005.)
Barberich said Lunesta and Xopenex have the potential to become blockbusters, and Sepracor - which had 300 employees in 1999 and now lists about 2,000 - has begun a major patient-education campaign to complement its beefing-up of the sales force.
"We will go from a relatively unknown entity to a household name," he vowed.
By custom, the JPMorgan event represents the launch of the industry's new year - which this time follows a 2004 marked, among other things, by Emeryville, Calif.-based Chiron Corp.'s overseas influenza vaccine snafu that led to a shortage of the medicine. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 6, 2004.)
At the conference, Chiron said it expects the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, with the FDA looking over its shoulder, will conduct a series of inspections of the problematic Liverpool, UK, manufacturing facility for the Fluvirin product, with an aim to restoring the facility's license.
Chiron's stock (NASDAQ:CHIR) closed Wednesday at $35.29, up 75 cents.
The conference ends today.