Novo Nordisk CEO apparent sees even more focus on diabetes

By Ben Hirschler LONDON (Reuters) - Other big drugmakers may be reshaping their businesses but Novo Nordisk's focus on diabetes will get even bigger in the coming decade, according to the man most likely to be the Danish company's next boss. Kaare Schultz, who was made deputy chief executive in January 2014 and is the frontrunner to eventually succeed 60-year-old Lars Sorensen, said diabetes was likely to account for 80-90 percent of sales in 10 years, up from 79 percent now. "This is the key focus for the company and we see strength in staying focused," he said in an interview in London. The world's No. 1 insulin maker is not running out of ideas when it comes to fighting the global diabetes epidemic. In addition to a new ultra-long-acting form of insulin, known as Tresiba, Novo also has two big bets in the market for so-called GLP-1 drugs, which stimulate the release of insulin when needed, with a potent once-weekly shot and the first ever GLP-1 pill. It is also experimenting with oral insulin. Apart from diabetes, Novo also makes biotech drugs for hemophilia and some other rare conditions. But it decided in 2014 to ditch research into inflammatory disorders. Last year, there were concerns it might be losing momentum in diabetes as rival products jockeyed for position and the company lost contracts to supply a major U.S. pharmacy group. In fact, its modern insulins are still doing well, even as rival Sanofi hit a bump in the road, and daily GLP-1 Victoza is growing strongly in the United States, despite the arrival of weekly competitors from GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly. Helped by a strong dollar, boosting Danish crown revenues from the United States where it generates nearly half its sales, Novo shares are trading around all-time highs. OBESITY DRUG LAUNCH Novo's next major move will be a push into obesity, which is closely related to diabetes, where it is preparing the U.S. launch of its keenly awaited medicine Saxenda, containing the same active ingredient as is found in Victoza. "We will not launch this month but we will launch soon," Schultz said. "It could be next month." Novo plans to use 500 of its 3,000-strong U.S. sales force to promote Saxenda and believes the new drug could eventually sell $1 billion a year, although the ramp-up will be slow. "It's going to be a challenge because of bad safety experiences with previous weight-loss medications and there is also a reimbursement issue around a new biological medicine that is injected and will be relatively expensive," Schultz said. Past problems with older weight-loss drugs have also led to slow take-up of a new wave of rival appetite-suppressing pills. Saxenda itself carries a warning of a link to thyroid cancer in rodent studies but Novo is confident it can gradually carve out a niche market in treating seriously obese Americans whose doctors might otherwise refer them for gastric band surgery. Schultz said cost would be more of a deterrent in Europe, where Saxenda is likely to be available initially only for privately funded patients.