The $63 billion sale of Allergan to AbbVie, one of the largest pharmaceutical mergers in history, is a suiting cap to Brent Saunders’ decade as a pharma CEO, part of his more than 25-year career in leadership positions at companies including Schering-Plough, Bausch & Lomb, and Forest Laboratories. At Schering, which was then headed by industry legend, Fred Hassan, who would become Saunders’ mentor, he learned a lesson that he would build on to great success: Aim for the drug categories where you can lead the market. As he took the helm at Allergan in 2014, the advice he took to heart would result in a long-running streak of innovation in a number of therapeutic areas—making Allergan a leader in the world of biopharma. We asked Saunders about his time at Allergan, the accomplishments he brought to bear, and drug pricing, a topic on which he has long been outspoken.
PM360: As Allergan is in the process of acquisition by AbbVie, can you give us a sense of which Allergan accomplishments you are most proud? What is the legacy that will endure?
Brent Saunders: I’ll say that after several years with a company like Allergan, it’s difficult to say what you’re most proud of—but a few things stand out to me. During my tenure, we have delivered 21 new medicines and/or devices to patients—based on R&D that is the lifeblood of what we in biopharma do. We recently celebrated 30 years and 100 million vials of BOTOX® and we’ve driven strong growth in both the therapeutic and cosmetic indications. In fact, total BOTOX® sales are now approximately 70% higher than they were five years ago. We also transformed Allergan into a digital company, taking an industry leadership role in digital capabilities. And our Social Contract with Patients demonstrates our commitment to responsibly pricing medicines and providing a robust, industry-leading patient access program. But for both Allergan, and for myself, the passion lies in the discovery of new medicines. That will endure.
You mentioned R&D as the lifeblood of the biopharma industry. How has R&D at Allergan changed in the past five years and where do you think it may be five years out?
I think R&D has changed significantly. We are laser-focused on four therapeutic areas: Medical Aesthetics, Eye Care, CNS, and GI. The pipeline we now have in both mid- and late-stage in each of those therapeutic areas has never been stronger. And it’s not just the depth and breadth of the R&D, but our commitment to create novel approaches to disease, cures, and treatments.
For example, in eye care that would include the gene therapy R&D we’re doing for rare forms of blindness to help patients who may never see again; or new treatments for devastating diseases like AMD. In CNS, we were able to successfully develop and receive approval of Vraylar for bipolar mania, schizophrenia, and bipolar depression. We just launched a new class of migraine drugs with UbrelvyTM, the first new oral mechanism since the triptans launched nearly 30 years ago. CNS will continue to be a strong growth driver. We’ve been a world leader in medical aesthetics, and probably have the deepest and strongest pipeline in medical aesthetics in Allergan’s history. Finally, in GI, we’re taking on diseases with no treatments or those that haven’t had new treatments in decades, such as gastroparesis.
In the next chapter for Allergan, in combination with AbbVie, it will be in an incredibly strong position given that it will be part of an organization that can invest billions of dollars more each year in innovation than Allergan can alone. That’s the right direction for our patients, colleagues, and stakeholders.
You also mentioned drug pricing, a controversial topic. Reuters recently reported that drug prices at Allergan, Novartis, Merck, and other companies will rise in 2020. What is your view on pricing, why prices continue to rise despite backlash, and how you have contributed to resolving the debate?
How drugs are priced in the U.S. is very complex, which makes it a very difficult topic for people to follow. At Allergan, we think about our price on a net, not gross basis, and on a net basis, we realize no price increases—or in many cases, see price deflation. That means the rebate system, or the middleman, is getting a larger share of the pie every year. And the question I think we should ask ourselves is where does that money go? If our discounts or our rebates are approaching 40% to 50% as an industry, we as the public should make sure that those discounts make their way to the patient.
Ultimately, it’s the patient’s insurance plan, or their PBM, or their retail pharmacy that determines the price patients pay at the pharmacy counter. It would be helpful if people could see where the money is flowing—who is recognizing rebates, where the discounts are going, and how that all affects individual costs at the pharmacy. I believe this kind of transparency will uncover the answers to these important questions.
Great. So what’s next for Brent Saunders? What excites you for the future?
I’m most passionate about finding new medicines. So, in terms of what’s next, I will absolutely want to continue to contribute and be part of biopharma to help improve the quality of life for patients. And what excites me right now is the science—we are seeing an explosion in terms of using our improved understanding of biology and the human genome to solve for disease. It’s arguably one of the most exciting things happening in the world. And it absolutely fascinates me.