Roche CEO does not rule out move into rare diseases

Reuters

* Will follow drug needs, no matter for how many patients -CEO

* Says Roche portfolio already addresses some rare diseases

* No comment on interest in U.S. biotechs Alexion, Biomarin

By Natalie Huet

PARIS, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The chief executive of Roche did not rule out a move into treatments for rarediseases on Wednesday, saying the Swiss drugmaker would go whereit could address unmet medical needs, even for very smallnumbers of patients.

There has been speculation that Roche might branch out intothe lucrative area of rare or so-called orphan diseases, whichaffect only a small number of people, after reports it wasconsidering bids for two U.S.-based companies, AlexionPharmaceuticals and BioMarin Pharmaceuticals.

Chief Executive Severin Schwan told a news conference inParis that Roche's main criteria when looking at which diseasesto go after was not the size of the patient population but howmuch additional value and medical benefit could be generated forthe individual patient.

Asked if that meant he did not exclude a move into rarediseases, he said: "We go where the science takes us, whereverit is, independent from the size of the patient population."

Schwan said that Roche's portfolio already includedtreatments for rare diseases such as cystic fibrosis and chroniclymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).

"The reasons we went into those areas was because there wasa medical need ... and we felt we could make a difference forthose patients concerned," he said.

But he declined to comment specifically on whether Roche wasinterested in buying Alexion or BioMarin.

His broader comments on the topic contrast with those of thegroup head of pharmaceuticals, who said in an interview lastmonth that treating ultra-rare diseases was a business that wasdistinct from Roche's current area of expertise.

Shares in Roche were up 0.7 percent at 248 Swiss francs at1500 GMT, when the STOXX Europe 600 Healthcare sector index was up 0.1 percent.

Shares in Alexion were down 0.2 percent at $107.52 whileBiomarin was down 0.1 percent at $67.28, while the NasdaqBiotech Index was down 0.7 percent.

'OPEN TO LOOKING'

High prices and lower development and marketing costs oftreatments for orphan diseases are drawing the attention of bigpharmaceutical companies as older drugs lose patent protection.

Shares in biotechnology group Alexion jumped in July afterpeople familiar with the matter said Roche was seeking financingfor a possible bid. No offer has emerged.

Roche has also been linked to BioMarin Pharmaceuticals,although the company denied last month it was raising financingfor a bid on the company.

The Basel-based firm is looking to branch out beyond itscore cancer drugs and Schwan highlighted the group's focus onautoimmune and inflammatory diseases as well as neuroscience.

"So in those three areas naturally we are a partner ofchoice for many companies. But again, if there was aninteresting opportunity outside of those established areas, Iwould be very open to look at it," he said.

Schwan last week knocked down speculation that Roche couldmerge with rival Novartis, saying it preferred bolt-onacquisitions.

He declined on Wednesday to give a price range for suchdeals, saying he wanted to stay flexible and see whatopportunities come up.

"We will always go where we think we have a chance to put aprogress of science into medical applications. The price is thena consequence of the opportunity," he said.

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