Lupus drug launch focuses on social media, advocacy orgs

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Human Genome has leveraged online patient groups to reach the lupus community
Human Genome has leveraged online patient groups to reach the lupus community
Human Genome Sciences and GlaxoSmithKline said online communication will play a key role in the upcoming launch of lupus drug Benlysta. The companies are considering various web channels, from advocacy groups to social media.

“Our launch approach will be very patient-centric,” said Barry Labinger, EVP and chief commercial officer, Human Genome. “We've got very strong clinical data in a disease where there are no good alternatives, so I think there will be a very high desire for patients who know about [Benlysta] to get it.”

After results this week showed Benlysta (belimumab) performed well in a second Phase III clinical trial, executives from Human Genome said they intend to file with FDA early next year. The agency could grant priority review and approve in the second half of 2010, at the earliest.

The question becomes how to reach the 325,000 patients Human Genome said are being treated by rheumatologists for lupus erythematosus, in particular the 200,000 with the moderate-to-severe form. A plethora of media coverage around the drug's progress has made that easier. 

The relatively small population with this form of the disease dictates a strategic approach to outreach. “I don't think we'll be doing mass media DTC,” Labinger said.  “We'll be more targeted.”

Human Genome has engaged nonprofits, including Lupus Foundation of America, in disseminating clinical trial updates to their constituents. Labinger said that post-launch, the firm will continue to tap these groups.

“Online communications will be a big part of this,” he said.  “A lot of what advocacy groups do is through websites and other online forums. Patients organize themselves through social media. Through various kinds of online dissemination of information, we will put appropriate things out there.”

As far as participating in a forum where consumers are generating content, Labinger said: “We need to see how we can take advantage of the opportunity and still make sure we are doing things in an appropriate way; we are a heavily regulated industry.”  

The biotech also has kept specialists informed from the beginning and, together with GSK, is building a sales force to target rheumatologists. Although the exact number has not been determined, Labinger said other sales forces for autoimmune diseases treated by rheumatologists are on the order of 150 reps. “We'll be able to reach key prescribers with a pretty small, focused bunch.”

McCann agency echoTorre Lazur is handling professional messaging; Human Genome has yet to name a consumer shop.
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