The next big thing at GlaxoSmithKline R&D is clearly oncology — respiratory can take a back seat now

Axel Hoos

GlaxoSmithKline is pondering some big new moves on the pharma R&D side of the business. And these suggestions may have caught more than a few GSK staffers by surprise.

Their cancer research chief, Axel Hoos, is telling reporters that the pharma giant is considering exiting the respiratory side of the business — where it was able to make a series of mostly marginal advances with new drugs in recent years — and setting up a research center on the West Coast, close to where R&D chief Hal Barron is based.

Hoos, an outspoken research executive who has the whole of cancer R&D under his wing at the company, told S&P Global Market Intelligence that oncology is where it’s at now — not respiratory.

“I don’t want to be inappropriate and step on some toes, but we have areas that have a higher probability of growth and areas with a lower probability of growth. Our respiratory franchise, for example, has been a driver for GSK R&D for a long time and we’ve been very successful with it … but it’s also pretty flat,” Hoos is quoted as saying. “There is not much growth to be expected. … This was a very successful business and continues to be — it’s just much harder to innovate in respiratory than it is to innovate in oncology.”

Hal Barron

I asked the company for some clarity on this, keen to find out more — particularly as Barron had been emphatic in our discussion that they aren’t building a new research center in the Bay Area, where he lives (despite some persistent rumors in the market).

There’s no change on that score, says a GSK spokesperson. The company is sticking with its two-hub strategy for Philadelphia and Stevenage. The expansion now underway in San Francisco has more to do with business development and dealmaking.

As for the respiratory group, there’s no move in or out of any area, she adds, just a move to prioritize the most promising drugs. So they aren’t abandoning respiratory, they just feel that there’s a lot more potential in oncology right now.

“Our biggest opportunity is in oncology at the moment,” she adds.

Hoos wouldn’t disagree with that. He told the S&P writer that the company’s BCMA product could be worth $5 billion a year following a 2020 OK — a risky projection that he’ll be held to now.

This isn’t the first time that GSK has deprioritized a therapeutic area or hub, for that matter. But GSK CEO Emma Walmsley made it clear last year that they were hanging on to respiratory as one of four core focuses in R&D. Generic competition for Advair, meanwhile, is looming. And that will carve the heart out of its core franchise drug.

GSK is trying to make a comeback in pharma R&D after a decade of flailing about. HIV and vaccines have done well, but when it comes to new pharma blockbusters, the company has largely been a no show. And that’s what Barron was brought in to fix.

GSK may keep all four core areas, but clearly not all therapeutic arenas are equal at the struggling giant. That writing on the wall is now clearly legible.

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Sr. Manager, Regulatory Affairs, CMC
CytomX Therapeutics San Francisco, CA
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Catalytic Data Science Charleston, SC
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Flatiron Health New York City or San Francisco

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