3 Big Pharma Companies With the Best Pipelines

By Keith Speights Markets Fool.com

It's not the current product lineups that matter the most for big pharma companies. It's their pipelines.

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Three big pharma companies boasting the strongest pipelines are Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), and Roche (NASDAQOTH: RHHBY). Here's what sets these drugmakers apart from their peers.

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Johnson & Johnson: A big pipeline that will soon grow more

Johnson & Johnson spent more than $9 billion on research and development last year, so you'd expect the company to have a strong pipeline. And it does.

In fact, J&J has so many experimental drugs in development that, unlike most biopharmaceutical companies, it doesn't list all of them in its published pipeline. Instead, the company only features the most promising late-stage candidates. At last count, there were over 30 of these late-stage drugs in Johnson & Johnson's pipeline spanning five major therapeutic categories.

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One especially promising candidate is sirukumab. J&J submitted the monoclonal antibody for U.S. regulatory approval in treating rheumatoid arthritis last September after several positive late-stage studies. However, the company won't reap all of the rewards that sirukumab might bring. GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) licensed commercialization rights to the drug in North, Central, and South America.

J&J owns all the rights, however, to another strong contender, Darzalex. The anti-CD38 monoclonal antibody won U.S. approval in November for treating multiple myeloma patients who have received three or more prior therapies. Johnson & Johnson has three late-state studies in progress for Darzalex as a frontline multiple myeloma treatment in combination with other drugs.

In addition, Johnson & Johnson should add Actelion's promising experimental drugs to its arsenal assuming the acquisition closes as expected in a few months. The Actelion deal will bring several drugs into J&J's fold, notably including experimental pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) drug macitentan and multiple sclerosis candidate ponesimod.

Novartis: Strong cancer portfolio thanks to past deal-making

Novartis' pipeline includes more than 200 programs in clinical development. Many of these programs target additional indications for existing Novartis drugs, but quite a few are for new molecular entities.

The Swiss drugmaker awaits regulatory approval for a dozen programs, including seven experimental cancer drugs and three biosimilars. Novartis' cancer pipeline was bolstered by a deal forged in 2014 to buy much of GlaxoSmithKline's oncology portfolio.

Over the next couple of years, Novartis hopes to add approved indications for several of its most successful current drugs. The company anticipates filing for regulatory approval for new indications for autoimmune disease drug Cosentyx, cancer drug Jakavi, eye-disease drug Lucentis, and leukemia drug Tasigna, among others.

Promising new drugs potentially on the way include INC280 for treating non-small cell lung cancer, LCI699 for treating Cushing's disease, and RLX030 for treating acute heart failure.

Roche: Pipeline exclamation points and question marks

Roche also claims a massive pipeline with around 150 clinical programs in development. One of the German drugmaker's most promising drugs is no longer included in the pipeline, though. Roche recently won regulatory approval for multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus. The drug is expected to generate peak annual sales of more than $3 billion.

Some of the most important studies in Roche's pipeline are for combination treatments based on the company's already-approved drugs. Cancer drug Tecentriq, for example, is included in over a dozen studies in combination with other drugs. Another cancer drug, Venclexta, is in at least four combination studies.

Roche does have one late-stage program with a big question mark hanging over its head, though. A patient died in a study of experimental hemophilia drug emicizumab. Although the death was determined to be unrelated to emicizumab, several severe adverse events experienced by the patient who died have been reported in its late-stage study.

Looking beyond 2018, Roche has a potential wave of regulatory filings on the way. The drugmaker could submit 25 drugs for approval. Among the most notable candidates are autoimmune disease drug etrolizumab and two experimental Alzheimer's disease drugs emicizumab and gantenerumab.

Coming at a good time

The reality is that all three of these big pharma companies could stand to get some help from their pipelines. Johnson & Johnson faces biosimilar challenges for its top-selling autoimmune disease drug Remicade. Novartis already faces generic rivals for cancer drug Gleevec and also must look ahead to generic competition for multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya in the next couple of years. Roche is dealing with lower sales for hepatitis drug Pegasys, cancer drug Tarceva, and eye-disease drug Lucentis (which Novartis co-markets).

Not all of the drugmakers' pipeline candidates will make it to market. However, J&J, Novartis, and Roche all have enough late-stage programs that their chances seem pretty good to roll out quite a few new products in the coming years.

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Keith Speights has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.