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ZURICH (Reuters) - Novartis is making progress in its bid to catch rivals developing drugs that harness the immune system to fight cancer, one of its top research scientists and latest recruit from Harvard University told Reuters in an interview.
Peter Hammerman joined the Swiss firm in late 2016, becoming the fourth leading cancer scientist to be poached in little more than year from Harvard, a short walk along Massachusetts Avenue from the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR), the company's Cambridge-based research arm.
The aim of this Harvard recruitment drive: to reinvigorate Novartis's oncology business.
The drugmaker has been slow to move into treatments that fight cancer by boosting the immune system - immunotherapies - over the past decade. This initial scepticism has cost it billions of dollars in lost sales as Roche, Bristol Myers-Squibb and Merck and Co all cashed in with so-called PD-1 and PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitor drugs.
"Certainly a challenge that has been laid down in front of many of us at Novartis (is) we don't have a marketed PD-1 or PD-L1 agent," Hammerman, one of the world's leading cancer experts, told Reuters in his first interview since joining Novartis.
"Our competitors do. That's a reality," he added. "But I think we have a broad and very strong portfolio."
Hammerman is the global head of oncology translational research at NIBR, where he leads Novartis's effort to understand just what drives tumor growth and how drugs affect the process.
He is treading the same Harvard-to-Novartis path walked by blood cancer specialist Jay Bradner, who now heads NIBR; Jeff Engelman, who heads the institute's overall cancer drug discovery; and cancer vaccine pioneer Glenn Dranoff, leader of NIBR's immuno-oncology efforts.
With the four, Novartis believes its oncology business is now on the right path.
It has added PD-1 molecules to its pipeline, thanks to its 2014 purchase of U.S.-based CoStim, and Hammerman and his colleagues are now studying 12 potential immunotherapy treatments.
Novartis, with rival U.S. biotech Kite, is also setting the pace in a separate field of cancer immunotherapy, called CAR-T, where doctors extract immune system T cells, supercharge them to better kill cancer, and re-inject them into the patient.
Novartis plans to seek U.S. approval for its drug soon and sees blockbuster potential.
But investors still need convincing after the company's slow entrance into immunotherapy drugs, which are widely regarded as a crucial part of cancer treatment for years to come and which industry analysts forecast could eventually generate annual sales of $30 billion to $40 billion.
Compounding the pain, Novartis' main cancer drug Glivec, whose annual sales once topped $4.6 billion, lost patent protection last year.
Novartis's share price has dropped 20 percent in the past two years, partly on concerns over its immuno-oncology pipeline. Some investors think it could be forced into a big acquisition to remedy shortcomings.
By comparison Merck's stock is up 11 percent.
"I've sold Novartis," said Phil Webster, a BMO fund manager in London. "I'm a bit worried about what they're going to do, what they're going to buy, because clearly there are holes in that cancer pipeline."
CAR-T is still unproven commercially, while companies with already approved immunotherapies have a head start since PD-1 and PD-L1 treatments will almost certainly form an important foundation for future treatments in which they are combined with chemotherapy or other cancer drugs.
"It's a big advantage," said Dan O'Day, Roche's drugs chief, whose immunotherapy Tecentriq won approval last for bladder and lung cancer.
"It is clear that PD-L1 (and) PD-1 is a backbone therapy."
Hammerman remains undaunted, contending shortcomings of PD-1 therapies - only 20 to 30 percent of patients benefit - mean the race for new, better ways to activate armies of T cells to more effectively seek out and destroy tumors is far from over.
"There are certainly ways to innovate and improve upon what is happening in the context of PD-1 and PD-L1 therapy," he said.
The Harvard lab named after Hammerman, where he did similar work, had 10 employees. Novartis, where he has 65 staff, lured him away with promises of assets unheard of even in Ivy League academia.
"We have a lot more patients, a lot more samples, a lot more trials and a lot more resources to do this than any given academic lab," Hammerman said.
Rejoining his Harvard buddies, with whom he regularly grabs lunch and the occasional after-work beer, was a factor, too.
The four have published hundreds of scientific papers among them, including a 2016 report in the journal Nature co-authored by Hammerman, Engelman, Dranoff and others on how tumors develop resistance to anti-PD-1 agents.
"It was really the combined draw of all three of them that brought me over here," Hammerman said.
Such talent, however, doesn't come cheap.
Pay for Engelman, Dranoff and Hammerman is not public but Bradner made $5.7 million last year, Novartis's 2016 annual report shows.
One thing is clear: when the four took their careers up Massachusetts Avenue, academia's loss was Big Pharma's gain.
"They are among best scientists with whom I've ever been acquainted," said Harvard scientist Stuart Schreiber, a world leader in chemical biology.
"Harvard has suffered from the loss of this level of talent."
Additional reporting by Simon Jessop in London; Editing by Pravin Char