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* Celltrion in vanguard of Korean push into biotech drugs
* Rituxan biosimilar on sale in UK, Germany, Netherlands
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, May 15 (Reuters) - The South Korean company behind the first cut-price copy of Roche's blockbuster biotech cancer drug Rituxan anticipates rapid sales growth in Europe as healthcare providers embrace the cheaper medicine.
Celltrion is leading a pharmaceuticals drive by South Korean firms, which aim to adapt the manufacturing skills that made the country a force in microchips and smartphones to the complex world of biotech drugs.
It already has a strong track record, after earlier winning EU approval for the first antibody-based biotech drug, a copy of Johnson & Johnson and Merck's rheumatoid arthritis treatment Remicade.
Cut-price copies of that so-called biosimilar grabbed more than a third of the market within a year of being launched in big EU countries in the third quarter of 2015, and Celltrion's strategy head thinks his Rituxan copy could do even better.
"It will be similar or even faster - that's our expectation," Ho-Ung Kim said on Monday during a visit to London.
Celltrion won European approval in February for its biosimilar version of Rituxan for leukaemia, lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis. It is currently sold in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, with more countries set to follow shortly.
A second Rituxan biosimilar, from Novartis, was recommended for approval last month, which Kim said would add to downward pressure on prices.
Many analysts have been surprised by the depth of discounts offered on biosimilars, with copies of Remicade selling for 70 percent less than the original brand in Nordic countries and at a discount of around 40 percent in other European markets.
Kim said deep discounts had been used to promote the economic benefits of biosimilars, a strategy he argued was paying off as both healthcare providers and medical experts embraced them as safe and cost-effective.
Because biotech drugs are made inside living cells it is impossible to make exact generic copies, which has led to uncertainty over how quickly they will erode sales when patents expire on expensive, branded biological drugs.
But the potential savings on multibillion-dollar sellers like Roche's Rituxan and its breast cancer drug Herceptin, as well as AbbVie's Humira for rheumatoid arthritis, make the potential savings a big attraction for governments and insurers.
Prescription drug data tracker IMS estimated last year that lower-cost biosimilars could save the United States and leading European markets as much as $110 billion by 2020.
Samsung BioLogics, the South Korean conglomerate's contract biotech drug manufacturing arm, is also developing a range of biosimilars through its Samsung Bioepis subsidiary, as the government in Seoul champions a sector it sees as a major future exporter. (Editing by Greg Mahlich)