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Posts Tagged → Merck

Rigged Reactions: Biocatalysis Meets 13C NMR

When you think of reaction screening, what comes to mind? Most would say LC-MS, the pharma workhorse, which shows changes in molecular polarity, mass, and purity with a single injection. Some reactions provide conversion clues, like evolved light or heat. In rare cases, we can hook up an in-line NMR analysis – proton (1H) usually works best due to its high natural abundance (99.9%).

Please welcome a new screening technique: 13C NMR. How can that work, given the low, low natural abundance of ~1.1% Carbon-13?

Researchers at UT-Southwestern Medical Center have the answer: rig the system. Jamie Rogers and John MacMillan report in JACS ASAP 13C-labeled versions of several common drug fragments, which they use to screen new biocatalyzed reactions.

Biocatalysis = big business for the pharma world. The recent Codexis / Merck partnership for HCV drug boceprevir brought forth an enzyme capable of asymmetric amine oxidation. Directed evolution of an enzyme made sense here, since they knew their target structure, but what if we just want to see if microbes will alter our molecules?

Enter the labeled substrates: the researchers remark that they provide an “unbiased approach to biocatalysis discovery.” They’re not looking to

13C Proof-of-Concept

Credit: JACS | UT-Southwestern, 2012

accelerate a certain reaction per se, but rather searching for any useful modifications using the 13C “detector” readout. One such labeled substrate, N-(13C)methylindole, shows proof-of-concept with their bacterial library, producing two different products (2-oxindole and 3-hydroxyindole) depending on the amount of oxygen dissolved in the broth. NMR autosamplers make reaction monitoring a snap, and in short order, the scientists show biotransformations of ten more indole substrates.

This paper scratches multiple itches for various chem disciplines. Tracking single peaks to test reactions feels spookily close to 31P monitoring of metal-ligand catalysis. Organickers, no strangers to medicinally-relevant indole natural products, now have another stir-and-forget oxidation method. Biochemists will no doubt wish to tinker with each bacterial strain to improve conversion or expand scope. The real question will be how easily we can incorporate 13C labels into aromatic rings and carbon chains, which would greatly increase the overall utility.

Scripps’ Schultz & Merck’s Kim Talk Calibr

Yesterday brought word of a new partnership between Merck & Co. and Scripps Research Institute chemist and biotech entrepreneur Peter Schultz. The two have launched the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), a San Diego-based not-for-profit that will collaborate with academic investigators to bring drug discovery ideas to the point of proof-of-concept in animals. Merck has kicked in $90 million over seven years to help fund the venture, and will have an option to license any molecule that comes out of it.

C&EN’s news story with all the nitty-gritty details can be found here, but we wanted to follow up with some more insights into the formation of the institute gleaned from talks yesterday with Schultz and Merck’s R&D head Peter Kim.

A burning question I had was how the individual collaborations with academic researchers would be structured. Throughout my coverage of pharma-academia collaborations over the years (see here and here), I’ve repeatedly heard from big pharma that a major hang-up in doing more and better deals is the difference of opinion between the company and the university tech transfer office in the value of an early stage project. Drug companies will say a discovery needs a lot of work, done on their dime, and a university wants to ensure it gets its fair share of the potential sales of a drug.

One benefit of the not-for-profit as intermediary model is that the set up sidesteps what can quickly become contentious negotiations between universities and potential industry partners, Schultz says. “When it gets to a discussion between a university tech transfer office and big pharma, all of a sudden it’s ‘who’s taking advantage of whom’,” Schultz says. Conversely, “it’s really easy for people at, say, UCSF and Berkeley to collaborate.”

At Calibr, the collaboration begins at such an early stage in the discovery process that it offers a straightforward 50/50 split in any gains made down the road. “The whole idea of two not-for-profits with complementary skill sets in a collaboration is to make it simple and move things forward,” Schultz says.

Based on early conversations Schultz and others involved with Calibr have had with potential collaborators, that model seems satisfactory. “People get it,” he adds.

Another question was how quickly Calibr will move forward. Despite a lot of talk of eliminating red tape in some of the more ambitious pharma-academia collaborations, getting things up and running when two different flavors of bureaucracy are involved is no small task.

Schultz says that the first projects to come through Calibr will likely be a result of networking by the institute, its scientific advisory board, and Merck. He expects they will have the capacity to take on 15-20 projects within the first two years. Down the road, Schultz anticipates a more formal proposal process will be put in place.

Merck, meanwhile, believes this model will provide access to the best scientific discoveries out there. Many companies have formed broad collaborations with academic institutions: for example, Pfizer has a network of deep partnerships through its Centers for Therapeutic Innovation; J&J has an oncology pact with MIT’s David H. Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research; and AstraZeneca has a close relationship with several departments at Columbia University Medical Center.

That approach is not for Merck, Kim says. “We’re not interested in doing collaborations with entire institutions or departments, but rather we ask ‘Who is the best person in the world who we should be working with?’” he notes. “Calibr enhances that strategy and moves it to the next level. Essentially, any scientist anywhere in the world can tap into Calibr.”

As a side note, Merck’s participation in Calibr was made possible in no small part to the two scientists long-standing mutual admiration. They have known each other since the early 1980s, when Kim was a graduate student at Stanford and Schultz was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley. “There’s a very deep respect here and deep trust,” Kim says. “We’ve been friends–and competitors-for many years.”

 

 

Haystack 2011 Year-in-Review

Well, 2011 is in the books, and we here at The Haystack felt nostalgic for all the great chemistry coverage over this past year, both here and farther afield. Let’s hit the high points:

1. HCV Takes Off – New treatments for Hepatitis C have really gained momentum. An amazing race has broken out to bring orally available, non-interferon therapies to market. In October, we saw Roche acquire Anadys for setrobuvir, and then watched Pharmasset’s success with PSI-7977 prompt Gilead’s $11 billion November buyout.  And both these deals came hot on the heels of Merck and Vertex each garnering FDA approval for Victrelis and Incivek, respectively, late last spring.

2. Employment Outlook: Mixed – The Haystack brought bad employment tidings a few times in 2011, as Lisa reported. The “patent cliff” faced by blockbuster drugs, combined with relatively sparse pharma pipelines, had companies tightening their belts more than normal. Traffic also increased for Chemjobber Daily Pump Trap updates, which cover current job openings for chemists of all stripes. The highlight, though, might be his Layoff Project.  He collects oral histories from those who’ve lost their jobs over the past few years due to the pervasive recession and (slowly) recovering US economy.. The result is a touching, direct, and sometimes painful collection of stories from scientists trying to reconstruct their careers, enduring salary cuts, moves, and emotional battles just to get back to work.

3. For Cancer, Targeted Therapies – It’s also been quite a year for targeted cancer drugs. A small subset of myeloma patients (those with a rare mutation) gained hope from vemurafenib approval. This molecule, developed initially by Plexxikon and later by Roche / Daiichi Sankyo, represents the first success of fragment-based lead discovery, where a chunk of the core structure is built up into a drug with help from computer screening.From Ariad’s promising  ponatinib P2 data for chronic myeloid leukemia, to Novartis’s Afinitor working in combination with aromasin to combat resistant breast cancer. Lisa became ‘xcited for Xalkori, a protein-driven lung cancer therapeutic from Pfizer. Researchers at Stanford Medical School used GLUT1 inhibitors to starve renal carcinomas of precious glucose, Genentech pushed ahead MEK-P31K inhibitor combinations for resistant tumors, and Incyte’s new drug Jakifi (ruxolitinib), a Janus kinase inhibitor, gave hope to those suffering from the rare blood cancer myelofibrosis.

4. Sirtuins, and “Stuff I Won’t Work With  – Over at In the Pipeline, Derek continued to chase high-profile pharma stories. We wanted to especially mention his Sirtris / GSK coverage (we had touched on this issue in Dec 2010). He kept up with the “sirtuin saga” throughout 2011, from trouble with duplicating life extension in model organisms to the Science wrap-up at years’ end. Derek also left us with a tantalizing tidbit for 2012 – the long-awaited “Things I Won’t Work With” book may finally be coming out!

5. Active Antibacterial Development – In the middle of 2011, several high-profile and deadly bacterial infections (Germany, Colorado, among others) shined a spotlight on those companies developing novel antibacterials. We explored front -line antibiotics for nasty Gram-negative E.coli, saw FDA approval for Optimer’s new drug Fidiclir (fidaxomicin) show promise against C. difficile  and watched Anacor’s boron-based therapeutics advance into clinical testing for acne, and a multi-year BARDA grant awarded to GSK and Anacor to develop antibacterials against bioterrorism microorganisms like Y. pestis.

6. Obesity, Diabetes, and IBS – Drugs for metabolic disorders have been well-represented in Haystack coverage since 2010. Both Carmen and See Arr Oh explored the vagaries of Zafgen’s ZGN-433 structure, as the Contrave failure threatened to sink obesity drug development around the industry. Diabetes drugs tackled some novel mechanisms and moved a lot of therapies forward, such as Pfizer’s SGLT2 inhibitors, and Takeda’s pancreatic GPCR agonist. Ironwood and Forest, meanwhile, scored an NDA for their macrocyclic peptide drug, linaclotide.

7. The Medicine Show: Pharma’s Creativity Conundrum – In this piece from October, after Steve Jobs’ passing, Forbes columnist Matt Herper both eulogizes Jobs and confronts a real ideological break between computer designers and drug developers. His emphasis? In biology and medical fields, “magical thinking” does not always fix situations as it might in computer development.

We hope you’ve enjoyed wading through the dense forest of drug development with Carmen, Aaron, Lisa, and See Arr Oh this past year. We here at The Haystack wish you a prosperous and healthy 2012, and we invite you to come back for more posts in the New Year!

Biogen Idec Reveals Clinical Data for (Really) Small Oral MS Drug BG-12

Biogen Idec made a splash last week when its oral medication for multiple sclerosis (MS), BG-12, was found to reduce relapses in 44-53% of nearly 3,800 patients in two separate Phase 3 clinical trials (CONFIRM and DEFINE, respectively). Continued hopes for an orally available, non-injectable MS treatment have created a race between Biogen Idec and several other firms, as C&EN’s Lisa Jarvis examines in a 2009 MS cover story. In fact, so much has changed in 2 years that two of the six Phase 3 drugs mentioned in that article – Teva’s laquinimod and Merck’s cladribine – have already been withdrawn from competition.

So what’s the secret sauce behind BG-12? Many pharmaceuticals are small molecules with multiple heteroatoms and aromatic rings, but not BG-12: it’s just dimethyl fumarate! A search for ‘fumarate’ on pubs.acs.org returned >4800 hits, which gives you an idea of its common use in several organic reactions: [3+2] cycloadditions, Diels-Alder reactions, and Michael additions. Interestingly, dimethyl fumarate is the all-E stereoisomer; the Z-configuration, where the two esters are on the same side of the central double bond, goes by the tagline ‘dimethyl maleate’ and does not seem to possess anti-MS effects.

Very small molecules such as BG-12 (molecular weight = 144) are notoriously tough to use as drugs: they hit lots of enzymatic targets, not just the intended ones, and tend to have unpredictable side effects (see Derek Lowe’s 2005 article regarding the FDA “approvability” of several common drugs today). Toss in BG-12’s alkylating behavior to boot (fumarates can interact with nucleophilic amines or sulfides at multiple sites, including enzyme active sites), and you have to wonder how it functions in the body. Well, so do scientists. A 2011 review implicates up to 3 potential biochemical mechanisms – the Nrf2 pathway Lisa mentioned in the 2009 piece, T-helper phenotype 2 interleukin upregulation (IL-4, IL-10, IL-5, which “change gears” for immune system functioning), and CD62E inhibition, which controls adhesion of blood cells to inflammation sites.

Side notes: Flavoring chemists have added fumaric acid, the parent diacid of BG-12, to industrially-prepared foodstuffs such as baking powder and fruit juices since the 1930s. A darker side of dimethyl fumarate emerges when you consider its non-medicinal use: certain furniture companies applied it to new upholstered chairs and sofas to stop mold growth. This unfortunately caused several cases of severe skin irritation, which a 2008 exposé in London’s Daily Mail likened to actual burns.

 

Two HCV Meds are Better than One for Pharmasset

An announcement hinting at the possibility of an all-oral hepatitis C treatment had researchers abuzz last week. Pharmasset, a Princeton, NJ company specializing in antiviral discovery, alluded to upcoming conference data that suggested a combination of ribavirin (a generic antiviral) and Pharmasset’s experimental pill PSI-7977 lowered viral counts to near-undetectable levels in a ten-patient trial (kudos to Adam Feuerstein of The Street for initial reports. . . here at The Haystack, editor Lisa Jarvis has also tracked HCV drug development for some time now).

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a chronic liver virus with an estimated 180 million infected worldwide. Two relatively new extermination options are available: Merck’s Victrelis (boceprevir) and Vertex’s Incivek (telaprevir), approved by the FDA ten days apart last year. Unfortunately, though both drugs are administered orally, each requires co-administration of injected interferon, which can cause severe fatigue and flu-like symptoms. Both oral drugs inhibit the same enzyme: the NS3 protease, which drags down a patient’s immunity and helps the virus to produce new copies of its proteins.

In contrast, the ribavirin and PSI-7977 combination involves no injections, making it easier for patients to follow the appropriate medication schedule, and lessening side effects. The PSI compound also clips a different target: NS5B polymerase, an RNA enzyme that helps viral genetic replication. In addition, the PSI-7977 is “pan-genotypic,” meaning it inhibits several genetically different strains of HCV.

 A 2010 article (J. Med. Chem. 2010, 53, 7202) details the full story of PSI-7977’s synthesis. Notice anything interesting? It’s really a nucleotide strapped on to a P-chiral prodrug, a “protected” substance the body later converts to the active drug species. This P-chiral motif is seen more often in asymmetric phosphine ligands (compounds that stick to metal catalysts during reactions to modify catalyst activity) than in drug development – often chemists install drug chirality at carbon or sulfur instead. The initial drug lead was actually a mixture of both phosphorus enantiomers (“Sp” and “Rp”), until process chemists realized they could selectively crystallize out the more potent “Sp” product.

In the meantime, Pharmasset scientists haven’t stopped pushing their HCV portfolio forward: a recent paper (J. Org. Chem., 2011, 76, 3782) details a new lead: PSI-352938, a cyclic phosphate prodrug attached to a purine-fluororibose nucleotide warhead. The team credits this new prodrug design with a 10-100-fold increase in potency over the “naked” adenine drug for NS5B RNA polymerase inhibition. PSI-352938 recently completed a multiple ascending dose Phase I trial, in which a daily 200 mg dose brought HCV titres down below the detection limit in 5 of 8 patients. 

 

 

 

Merck Seals Hepatitis C Pact with Roche

Merck is going bare knuckles in the marketing battle for Hepatitis C patients. Just days after receiving FDA approval to market its protease inhibitor boceprevir, now known as Victrelis, it revealed Roche has signed on to co-promote the drug alongside its pegylated interferon drug Pegasys, a cornerstone of HCV treatment.

Competition in the HCV arena is expected to be fierce, as Vertex Pharmaceuticals is expected to get the FDA nod to market its own protease inhibitor for HCV telaprevir, to be marketed as Incivek, no later than Monday. Both the Merck and Vertex drugs will need to be taken in combination with the current standard of care, pegylated interferon and ribavirin.

Although the two drugs have never gone head to head in the clinic, telaprevir is widely considered to have a better dosing regimen and a slight safety and efficacy edge over Victrelis. As such, analysts have believed that Merck’s main advantage in the HCV market would be its ability to promote Victrelis alongside its own pegylated interferon PegIntron. Now, it will also have Roche’s sales force out there hawking Victrelis with Pegasys, as well.

No financials for the deal were announced, so its hard to say at this point how much Merck is giving up in its quest for a bigger piece of the HCV market. It’s also important to note that this is a non-exclusive pact, so time will tell whether Roche and Vertex establish a similar alliance.

The deal also allows Merck and Roche to “explore new combinations of investigational and marketed medicines.” As readers will recall, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for interferon and ribavirin, which have harsh side effects, and treat HCV using only a cocktail of pills. Roche and Merck each have promising small molecules against HCV in their pipelines: Merck has vaniprevir, an NS3/4a protease inhibitor in Phase II trials, while Roche has the polymerase inhibitor RG7128, the protease inhibitor RG7227, and the earlier-phase polymerase inhibitor RG7432.

Read here for past coverage of the race to get new HCV drugs to market.

Genentech Says Experimental Cancer Combo is Safe

Genentech this week unveiled promising results from a Phase I study suggesting it is possible to safely combine two cancer drug candidates, its MEK inhibitor GDC0973 and its PI3K inhibitor GDC0941. In addition to a relatively clean safety profile, there were also early signs that the combination is combating cancer.

Genentech is one of several companies running a trial to test the safety of combining inhibitors of the lipid kinase PI3K, part of the PI3K/AKT/mTor pathway, and drugs blocking the protein kinase MEK, part of the KRas/MAP signalling pathway. As we discuss in our upcoming April 11th cover story on PI3K inhibitors, the rationale for knocking down both pathways  is compelling: both are considered to be crucial in cancer cells’ survival, and blocking only one pathway has more often than not proven ineffective.

As Robert Abraham, CSO of Pfizer’s oncology research unit, explains in Monday’s story:

“KRas mutations are associated with many of the deadliest cancers,” including colorectal and pancreatic, Pfizer’s Abraham says. Yet they are incredibly resistant to conventional chemotherapy, and based on preclinical studies of the mutations, are expected to be resistant to the new batch of mTor/PI3K inhibitors as well, he adds. The working hypothesis is that knocking out two of the major drivers of cancer—the KRas and PI3K pathways—could have a significant effect on the most recalcitrant tumors.

To date, there are at least six Phase I trials planned or ongoing that combine MEK inhibitors with compounds that block some aspect of the mTor/PI3K pathway. Merck and AstraZeneca made headlines in 2009 when they said they would partner to test Merck’s AKT inhibitor with AstraZeneca’s MEK inhibitor. Sanofi-Aventis has meanwhile teamed with Merck Serono to explore the potential of combining two of its PI3K inhibitors in combination with Merck Serono’s MEK inhibitor. GlaxoSmithKline has two of its own drugs in a combination trial, and its MEK inhibitor GSK1120212 is also being tested in combination with Novartis’ PI3K inhibitor BKM120. And while Pfizer has yet to initiate such a study, Abraham said the company is “keeping two eyes on that combination.”

We go into much more detail in Monday’s cover story about the efforts to match PI3K inhibitors with other drugs, and the rationale behind different flavors of compounds (mTor/PI3K inhibitors vs. pan-PI3K inhibitors vs. single-isoform inhibitors). Stay tuned!

Drug Candidate Structures Revealed At #ACSAnaheim

1PM Pacific: There’s one hour left before chemists will pack a ballroom in Anaheim to see potential new drugs’ structures unveiled for the first time. Watch this space for updates.

2:39PM Pacific: CEP-26401
This drug candidate now has a name: irdabisant
company: Cephalon
meant to treat: deficits in cognition and/or attention in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia
mode of action: inverse agonist of histamine H3 receptor, which regulates several neurotransmitter pathways involved in cognition, attention, memory
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Cephalon’s goal was to bring a high quality compound to the clinic to define the utility, if any, of H3 antagonists for these indications. The team studied compounds in this area that failed. Among the things they learned was that several adverse events could be tied to drug candidates’ lipophilicity. So the team prioritized lipophilicity and other such characteristics in its discovery workflow. status in the pipeline: completing Phase I in the beginning of April 2011, advancing to Phase II
structure coming soon!
UPDATED 3/29 with structure:

CEP-26401

3:16PM Pacific: BMS-663068
company: Bristol-Myers Squibb
meant to treat: HIV
mode of action: inhibits HIV attachment to host cells by binding to the viral envelope gp120 protein and interfering with its attachment to host CD4 receptors
medicinal chemistry tidbits: potency and getting the drug candidates to reach the bloodstream efficiently were key. Replacing a methoxy group on with heterocycles, such as triazoles, gave a big boost in potency.
status in the pipeline: Completed Phase IIa clinical trials. Phase IIb studies are planned for later this year.

BMS-663068

4:24PM Pacific:LX1031
company: Lexicon
meant to treat: irritable bowel syndrome
mode of action: blocks a subtype of tryptophan hydroxylase, the rate-limiting enzyme in serotonin synthesis, in the gut.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Lexicon started their medchem program with an open mind. They could have made a molecule that was exquisitely selective for the subtype of tryptophan hydroxylase in the gut, they could avoid hitting the other subtype by making their molecule stay out of the brain, or both. They ultimately ended up using the latter strategy, making molecules slightly on the heavy side (above 500 or 550 molecular weight) and adding groups like a carboxylic acid, that tend to keep things out of the brain.
status in the pipeline: Completed Phase IIa clinical trials.


5:30PM Pacific: MK-0893
company: Merck
meant to treat: type 2 diabetes
mode of action: blocks the receptor for the hormone glucagon. Glucagon is released by the pancreas in response to falling glucose levels.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Merck kept several chemical scaffolds in play during this research program. But the team’s big breakthrough was adding a methyl group to the benzylic position of a promising compound, which greatly improved potency. This methyl group strategy hadn’t worked for previous compound series, but the team revisited it anyway.
status in the pipeline: Completed some Phase II trials, according to clinicaltrials.gov

ELND006
company: Elan
meant to treat: Alzheimer’s disease
mode of action: blocks gamma-secretase, a key enzyme in the production of amyloid-beta, the peptide behind the plaques that mar Alzheimer’s patients’ brains.
medicinal chemistry tidbits: Adding a cyclopropyl group and a trifluoromethyl group enhanced molecules’ metabolic stability.
status in the pipeline: discontinued because of adverse liver side effects unrelated to its mode of action.

5:31PM Pacific: That’s all for now, folks. I hope to update with more structure information later. Watch for my full story on this symposium in a mid-April issue of C&EN.

First Time Drug Disclosures at #ACSAnaheim

Medicinal chemists, it’s that time of year once again. Time for the ACS National Meeting, and the accompanying symposium where drug companies reveal the structures of drug candidates in clinical trials for the first time. I’ll be on the ground in Anaheim and will be posting from that session (which lasts from 2PM-5PM Pacific Sunday the 27th) and others. Here is the Anaheim Division of Medicinal Chemistry program (pdf).
And here is the list of disclosures:

  • Discovery and characterization of CEP-26401: A potent, selective histamine H3 receptor inverse agonist: R. Hudkins, Cephalon
  • Discovery of BMS-663068, an HIV attachment inhibitor for the treatment of HIV-1: J. Kadow, Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • Discovery and development of LX1031, a novel serotonin synthesis inhibitor for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: A. Main, Lexicon
  • Discovery of MK-0893: A glucagon receptor antagonist for the treatment of type II diabetes: E. Parmee, Merck
  • Discovery of ELND006: A selective γ-secretase inhibitor: G. Probst, Elan

Big Pharma Talks Emerging Markets Strategy

Last year’s JP Morgan Healthcare conference brought a flood of proclamations and projections about growth in emerging markets. Although the topic is now more of a given rather than a new arm of drug companies’ strategies, it seemed worth compiling some of the comments on emerging markets made at this year’s event. Of note? With many of the best assets in developing countries already snatched up and so much attention on what remains, prices are rising. Several big pharma CEOs underscored the need to grow at a profit, instead of just for the sake of growing. Time will tell if companies can heed their own advice.

GlaxoSmithKline is very deliberately shifting resources away from the U.S. and into emerging markets. In just a few years, the number of sales reps in the U.S. is down to 5,000 from 9,000, while the number of reps in emerging markets has grown from about 8,500 to 13,000, said GSK’s chief strategy officer David Redfern.

Of the 17 significant M&A deals undertaken by GSK since mid-2008, nine were in emerging markets. When asked whether that pace would continue, Redfern said the company no longer needed acquisitions to gain entry into those markets. And while bolt-on deals are still possible, he notes that

“There’s no doubt prices are going up in emerging markets and we’ll maintain our discipline,” Redfern said. “In 2008 we did quite a few deals. We’ve walked away from a lot more deals last year.”

Sanofi-Aventis is also bolstering its sales force in emerging markets at the expense of jobs in the U.S. and Europe. Chris Viehbacher said there has been a 40% reduction in pharmaceutical operations between 2009 and 2011, and a significant overhaul of its European operations is underway. Meanwhile, headcount in emerging markets is expected to increase by 40% in that same timeframe. As a result, “in 2011, we expect to sell more in emerging markets than we do in Europe or the U.S.”

Merck said it had also “significantly reduced” the number of sales reps in developed markets. The company’s goal is to grow sales in emerging markets from 18% to 25% by 2013.

“We’ve been frank to say that companies are ahead of us,” Merck’s CEO Ken Frazier said. However, he pointed out that it’s still an open field: the leading player in China only has about 3% of the market share.

Frazier also stressed the importance of achieving profitable growth in those regions, a nod to the rising prices for assets. “We think value-creating partnerships are the right way to go, because that way our partners have a strong stake in the growth and success of our business,” he added.

Eli Lilly & Co. is avoiding pure generics, and instead is trying to expand its presence in emerging markets by increasing sales of its existing product portfolio in six key markets–China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Korea. After doubling its sales force in China, among other efforts, the company has doubled sales in emerging markets in the past five years. Sales in emerging markets, now over 10% of total Lilly revenues, are expected to double again in coming years, said Lilly CEO John Lechleiter.

“We will add nominally medicines to our offerings, primarily in our core therapeutic areas, through product acquisitions, licensing deals, or co-marketing arrangements,” Lechleiter said. “We will pursue alliances, possibly including company acquisitions, to bolster our ability to capture growth in areas where our infrastructure is not fully developed.”

Lastly, big biotech is starting to at least think about, if not fully outline its strategy to expand globally. In a passing comment during his presentation, Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer said emerging markets will be an important part of the company’s future, but “not the future tomorrow morning, but the strategic future.”