Branded Benlysta DTC campaign ready to roll out

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New online and print DTC advertising targeting US patients with lupus will appear “within weeks,” said executives from Human Genome Sciences. But can the campaign, combined with other marketing enhancements, revive blockbuster fortunes for Benlysta?

The consumer creative will feature real patients sharing their experiences in an effort to build a patient community and “empower them to expect better management of their disease activity,” said Barry Labinger, EVP and chief commercial officer for the biotech, in comments made during an earnings call yesterday.

The branded work is also meant to spur a “higher sense of urgency” among rheumatologists to initiate trials of the drug, Labinger added: “In market research, rheumatologists report that 90% of the time when appropriate patients reflect the drug by name, they receive that drug.”

The fresh creative is part of a slate of promotional programs set for kick-off as Human Genome, and its partner GlaxoSmithKline, seek to build a market for Benlysta, their treatment for systemic lupus approved in March. Until now, the firms have relied primarily on their combined sales force.

Full implementation of the commercial plan couldn't come at a better time. Third-quarter Benlysta net revenue was $18.8 million, below consensus of $20.1 million. (Q3 company revenues also came in below consensus, $34.0 vs. $36.98.) While the drug has shown consistent sales increases, “there are clearly opportunities to accelerate growth,” Human Genome CEO Thomas Watkins said during the earnings call (transcript from SeekingAlpha.com.)

About 3,000 patients worldwide receive the drug, HGI shared yesterday. (There are about 200,000 US patients with moderate and severe forms of the disease.) Following EU approval in July, it's available in a handful of European countries.

Uptake lags analyst projections, though, and some have backed off $2-billion peak sales estimates for the drug. Collins Stewart analyst Salveen Richter, for one, wrote in an investor note today:

“Given the average weekly gross sales trajectory…and that HGSI now expects to reach profitability in 2014 (vs. 2013 prev.), we are lowering our FY11+ Benlysta revenue and EPS estimates, with US peak sales of ~$900M (vs. ~$2B prev.)…[and price target] to $17 from $35.”

Getting doctors to initiate trial of Benlysta and progress to adoption has obviously proved challenging. Company executives hope their new commercial activities have an impact.

The consumer campaign will offer tools to help others identify and describe the impact of their disease in discussions with physicians, with materials and programs executed through narrow marketing channels. “Fortunately lupus patients are active information [seekers] and can be reached via a very targeted efficient media plan, so don't expect to see commercials on prime time at a Super Bowl,” said Labinger.

Just prior to Benlysta's approval, GSK and HGS launched an online patient portal for lupus sufferers and their friends and family, usinlupus.com, and so far, thanks to targeted consumer activities which have included direct-response print advertising, about 15,000 patients have signed up to get information about new treatments. These patients will begin to receive information about Benlysta when the campaign launches in November, Labinger said.

In addition, HGS said it received DDMAC approval for new sales aids and is significantly expanding the speakers' bureau and programs designed to increase levels of scientific engagement among lupus experts and treaters. The firm increased the number of paid speakers from about 10 to about 70, enabling it to conduct “three-fold more programs with these speakers [in the fourth quarter] than we did in the first two quarters combined,” Labinger said.

 

Richter notes that the additional marketing programs “should aid Benlysta uptake,” but cautions, “getting physicians from trial phase to into the adoption phase (treating more than a few patients) will require significant education on patient identification and efficacy assessment, given the heterogeneity of [systemic lupus] and patient-care and [will] likely take at least 6 months.”

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