(Reuters) - Novartis is well placed in the hot field of cancer immunotherapy, despite being behind rivals in developing immune system-boosting drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors, a top executive at the Swiss drugmaker said on Monday.
"We will play an important role in this in the future and we believe we are well-positioned for that," Bill Hinshaw, U.S. head of Novartis Oncology, told a webcast media briefing in New Jersey.
With many industry experts expecting cancer immunotherapy to eventually generate tens of billions of dollars in annual sales, Novartis will set out its ambitions in cancer and other diseases in more detail at a June 17-18 investor event in Boston.
The company, the world's biggest drugmaker by sales, has long been a leader in targeted cancer treatments, such as its ground-breaking leukaemia drug Glivec.
But while the likes of Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Roche and AstraZeneca have recently focused on checkpoint inhibitor drugs, Novartis has put most of its effort behind a cell-based immunotherapy known as CAR-T.
Now it is broadening its bet on different ways to harness the body's immune system to fight tumors, including a sharp ramp-up in checkpoint inhibitor work.
Last year, Novartis bought CoStim Pharmaceuticals, giving it access to a so-called PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, and in March this year it signed a deal with Aduro Biotech, securing access to a novel kind of immunotherapy approach called STING.
As a result, the Swiss group is rapidly building an extensive presence in multiple immunotherapy approaches, opening the door to opportunities to create different drug cocktails.
"We're a world leader in cellular therapy and we have a great set-up in terms of second- and third-generation checkpoint inhibitors, and our leadership in targeted therapies gives us a wonderful opportunity for combinations and sequences," Hinshaw said.
Novartis recently started clinical testing of an anti-PD1 drug, according to U.S. government website clinicaltrials.gov, and it also has drugs to block two other immune-checkpoint pathways known as LAG3 and TIM3 that could enter into human studies in 2015.
In a further sign of its commitment to cancer immunotherapy, Novartis two months ago launched an immuno-oncology research group led by a leading cancer expert from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Editing by Jane Merriman