Report from Withers & Rogers also found that biologics are making up a growing portion of applications.

Big pharma pursued significantly fewer patents in 2009 compared to two years earlier, according to data from the London law firm Withers & Rogers. The report found that 129 “patent families” were sought by the top 10 drug companies in leading markets in 2009, a nearly one-third drop from 189 in 2007. In terms of individual patents, Novartis led the way among pharmas with 368 filings, followed by Sanofi with 148. At the other end, Abbott racked up just 53 patent filings, two fewer than next-lowest GlaxoSmithKline.

“While filings have fallen across the board, possibly due to current economic uncertainty and cost pressures facing big pharma as blockbuster drugs hit the patent cliff, R&D interest in biologics has remained strong,” Nicholas Jones, Ph.D., partner at Withers & Rogers, said in comments quoted by both the Financial Times and The Pharma Letter.

Indeed the gap between 2007 and 2009 filings for biologics patents is narrower than for small molecule drugs: 14.5% fewer biologics patent applications in 2009 compared with 31.5% fewer overall patent filings. “It is considerably easier to develop and manufacture small molecule drugs; they come with lower R&D costs, and there is an established market infrastructure for them. Therefore, the shift to biologics could result in fewer new products making it to market,” Dr. Jones said, according to Pharma Letter.

By 2009, according to the study, biologics accounted for 60% of the patents filed by the top 10 pharmas and as much as 80% of the patent filings of Abbott. It remains to be seen how that percentage will change once Abbott completes the spinoff of its prescription-drug business, which Bloomberg speculated last fall “may become a $54 million target for drugmakers looking to rejuvenate their flagging portfolios.”

Novartis’ 260 patent applications relating to biological drugs was the most published in 2009. It had more than twice as many patents for biological drugs compared to small molecules. Next was Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co. AstraZeneca ranked lowest with just 15 biologicals patents, or 22% of its total, reflecting a gradual shift by the group away from its historical strength in chemical molecules. AstraZeneca was one of two pharma giants with less than half of its patents sought for biological in 2009; the other was Pfizer.

“Though the numbers provide what the FT calls an ‘imperfect snapshot’ of what is going on in the industry, they once again suggest that pharma companies are finding it hard to convert their R&D spending into experimental drugs,” Ana Nicholls, healthcare analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said in a guest posting on “Given other reports suggesting that regulatory approval has also become harder to obtain, this explains why big pharma is finding it so difficult to refill its pipelines as older patents expire.”

Hence, Nicholls said, pharma’s rush toward job cuts and acquisitions of biotechs over the past couple of years. That rush could well slow down, she added if any of several bills designed to cut regulatory red tape become law: The Faster Access to Specialized Treatments (FAST) Act is in the House of Representatives (HR 4132), and the Transforming the Regulatory Environment to Accelerate Access to Treatments (TREAT) Act is in the Senate (S.2113).

EIU offered a likely explanation for Novartis’ leadership in patent applications: The company leads the industry in R&D spending. Last year, Novartis’ R&D spending rose nearly 19% from 2010 to $9.6 billion, the equivalent of over 16% of revenues. Novartis’ leadership in R&D spending came despite the company moving to close a lab in Basel and shifting some of its work to Asia.

To read the story from the Financial Times, click here.
To read the story from The Pharma Letter, click here.
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