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Bayer poaches GlaxoSmithKline exec to lead expanding oncology business—including a blockbuster hopeful

Oncology is hardly what Bayer is known for. But the German drugmaker has raided GlaxoSmithKline—which is itself reestablishing a cancer foothold—for a new leader in the field.

Christine Roth, currently head of GSK’s global oncology therapy area, will join Bayer as its new oncology business head on March 1. She replaces Robert LaCaze, who’s leaving Bayer for an undisclosed destination.

Roth has her work cut out for her. At a company that only plays in a corner of the oncology market, Roth will set out to lead the charge of realizing Bayer’s blockbuster expectations for prostate cancer med Nubeqa amid tough competition from rivals.

Bayer has historically been a major cardiovascular disease player. The aspirin maker’s top-selling med is Johnson & Johnson-partnered blood thinner Xarelto, which brought in 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) sales for the company in the first nine months of 2021. By comparison, its best-selling oncology products, liver cancer therapies Stivarga and Nexavar, only ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in its overall pharma portfolio. The drugs generated combined sales of 701 million euros during the same period.

As Xarelto begins to face generic competition in major markets, Bayer has outlined four potential blockbusters to help fill the sales gap. Among them, delivering on Nubeqa’s estimated 1 billion euros in peak sales will likely be Roth’s top priority.

So far, the launch of Nubeqa has been slow. Approved by the FDA mid-2019 for men with non-metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, the androgen receptor inhibitor has yet to make Bayer’s list of top 20 drugs as of the third quarter. Its narrow label, plus an uphill fight against Pfizer and Astellas’ dominant Xtandi and J&J’s newer Erleada—coupled with the ongoing pandemic—could explain the drug’s slow ramp.

But opportunity lies ahead. Nubeqa could soon chalk up a label expansion into metastatic hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, which could see it match up to Erleada’s two existing indications. In 2021, the J&J rival drug posted $1.29 billion in global sales thanks to a 69% jump in sales from year to year.

Besides Nubeqa, Bayer also sells the radiotherapy medicine Xofigo for prostate cancer. That drug also faces a much-anticipated competitor in Novartis’ 177Lu-PSMA-617, which expects an FDA decision in the first half of 2022. To bolster its portfolio, Bayer recently acquired Noria Therapeutics and subsidiary PSMA Therapeutics to gain control of two investigational radiotherapies in prostate cancer.

Roth had previously served a short stint at Novartis after GSK’s three-pronged asset swap in 2015 that saw the Swiss pharma take over GSK’s oncology portfolio. But Roth hopped back to GSK in late 2017 amid a major management reshuffle under CEO Emma Walmsley.

GSK returned to being a commercial oncology player in 2019 with the acquisition of Tesaro, maker of PARP inhibitor Zejula. J&J, owner of Zejula’s commercial rights in prostate cancer, also looks to carve out a niche market of the disease, which could further pressure Nubeqa’s position.

Other challenges ahead of Roth include achieving Vitrakvi’s peak sales potential of about 750 million euros in heated competition against oncology major Roche’s Rozlytrek in NTRK-driven solid tumors. The drug is also not yet big enough to earn separate sales reporting at Bayer.