Pfizer criticized after its drop of Exubera leaves Nektar hanging

NEW YORK: Pfizer's work with Weber Shandwick on the drug Exubera has come to an end following the company's decision to drop the inhaled insulin product it launched just last year.

NEW YORK: Pfizer's work with Weber Shandwick on the drug Exubera has come to an end following the company's decision to drop the inhaled insulin product it launched just last year. Since the announcement, executives at Nektar Therapeutics, the San Carlos, CA-based company that developed the product, have criticized Pfizer harshly for its marketing of Exubera.

Jennifer Brendel, manager of US communications for Pfizer, said that the company is currently working on the Exubera transition with WS and that it does not affect the agency's work on other drugs, such as Lipitor. The agency declined to comment.

WS faced similar disappointment last year when torcetrapib, another drug Pfizer expected to become a blockbuster, was stopped in the clinical trial phase because of safety concerns. WS had won the torcetrapib work only three months before that decision.

In this recent discontinuation, Pfizer has discouraged doctors from prescribing the drug. "We are letting doctors know that they should begin moving their patients off Exubera and onto other medicines that control high blood-sugar levels," said Joseph Feczko, Pfizer chief medical officer, in a statement.

Brendel said the company was encouraging doctors to move away from the product because there was uncertainty over what Nektar would do after Pfizer stops selling it in 90 days. With rights being transferred back to Nektar, the company is free to search for new partners to market and distribute the product.

Meanwhile, Nektar has sought to communicate to investors and media, placing blame for the product's failure on Pfizer's handling of its launch and reiterating the belief that a market for Exubera exists.

"We first learned this morning of Pfizer's decision to walk away from Exubera, from their press release," said Howard Robin, president and CEO of Nektar, in a statement. "Nektar has been very disappointed in Pfizer's performance in marketing Exubera. Pfizer has publicly acknowledged its organizational difficulties and resulting poor performance in launching Exubera."

Tim Warner, SVP of IR and corporate affairs for Nektar, said the company was evaluating all of its options in the wake of Pfizer's actions. Asked if a lawsuit was a possibility, Warner responded, via e-mail: "There is speculation along those lines. Nothing is definitive at this point." He added that the company is conducting all communications in-house.

Nektar originally partnered with Sanofi-Aventis on the product, but the company sold its stake to Pfizer in 2005 for $1.3 billion, before Food and Drug Administration approval. Expectations were high for the medicine, with the company projecting it would be a $2 billion-a-year blockbuster. But Pfizer reported that Exubera brought in just $12 million in the first nine months of this year.

With the patent on Lipitor set to expire in 2010, Pfizer continues to search for blockbuster products that would help soften the blow.

It has increasingly looked to license the rights to medicines from smaller companies like Nektar.

From a corporate reputation standpoint, some observers believe biotech companies may now be wary of signing with Pfizer.

"Other companies have obviously taken notice, and they are very dependent on external licensing opportunities and similar deals to the one [Pfizer] struck with Nektar," said Jami Rubin, MD and pharma analyst for Morgan Stanley.

"It's amazing to me how horribly they handled this," Rubin added. "I am in support of their giving up on it, but to have handled it the way they did is surprising - not even to give Nektar a courtesy call the night before the announcement. I don't know what they were thinking."

Tony Russo, chairman and CEO of Russo Partners, said that Exubera faced problems from the get-go and that Pfizer's marketing reputation will make it through this rough patch. "Biotech companies realize that Pfizer, from a marketing point of view, has tremendous marketing clout," he said. "It has had many, many major blockbuster drugs over the years, and it is a force to be reckoned with."

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