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Comment: Glaxo's risks may bear fruit with cancer treatment hopes

JIM ARMITAGE

Since becoming GlaxoSmithKline CEO in 2017, Emma Walmsley has swept through the business like a tornado.

In pretty much record time, she’d done a £10bn joint venture deal for Pfizer’s consumer business, declared a demerger of its pharmaceuticals arm and spent £4 billion buying US cancer specialist Tesaro. She hired aggressively too, bringing in among others pharma rock star Hal Barron. Tesaro’s takeover was his brainchild.

Such big deals are clearly risky, and we won’t know if they’ve worked for many years. GSK needed to boost its flagging pipeline of new drugs, but some fret it overpaid for Tesaro.

Today came hope Barron and Walmsley were right after all.

Tesaro’s key drug is Zejula, a treatment for ovarian cancer, a frightening disease diagnosed in 300,000 women a year.

At the moment it is only prescribed two stages of treatment after chemo.

It had been thought that it would only work earlier in the 15% of sufferers with a certain genetic make-up. Today’s study, however, suggests that’s not the case. Triple the number of patients may benefit than previously thought.

Yet GSK shares barely moved. That’s partly because noises around Zejula had been positive for some time, but mainly because arch rival AstraZeneca has a version due to report results on a similar trial soon.

Such competition was why some analysts had been iffy about the Tesaro takeover. But GSK is bound to face others in its markets; it already competes in HIV treatments with Gilead. Today’s study could mean GSK gets its treatment prescribed first and has a good shout of winning over doctors. Besides, Zejula is also being trialled for other cancers.

Early days yet, but it’s good news for the Walmsley whirlwind.