By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline will scout for deal opportunities in cancer medicine, as well as immunology, as the drugmaker seeks to rebuild its presence in oncology, its new head of pharmaceuticals told Reuters.
In his first public comments since joining GSK in September, Luke Miels said the focus would be mainly on buying or licensing early-stage drugs. The hunt is set to gather pace in the new year with the arrival of new research chief Hal Barron.
Both men have been parachuted into Britain's biggest drugmaker by Chief Executive Emma Walmsley, who has made improving returns in the core prescription drugs business her top priority since taking over in April.
GSK has lagged behind rivals in recent years in producing multibillion-dollar blockbusters and has suffered a number of high-profile failures, undermining faith in its research and development skills.
Both Miels and Barron have considerable experience in oncology and worked together for more than five years at Roche, the world's biggest maker of cancer drugs.
Miels, who was most recently at AstraZeneca, said the existing GSK drug pipeline was a promising start.
"The cupboard is not as bare as people think but there is a lot of work to do," he said.
"Where there are gaps in the pipeline, both Hal and myself have a bit of experience with business development. Hopefully, if we did see something outside then we would make a good call and invest sensibly on behalf of shareholders."
GSK's position on cancer medicine has left some investors scratching their heads. The company sold its marketed cancer drugs to Novartis in 2015, but it continues to invest in early-stage research and has recently made advances with a promising multiple myeloma drug.
"The areas we are interested in are oncology and immunology," Miels said of the hunt for deal opportunities.
"I'm sure Hal will have a lot of ideas but our focus is really on early-stage business development where we can spot things that we can pick up, target and accelerate."
While improving the drug pipeline is a priority, analysts say GSK's ability to make big acquisitions will be constrained by the need to conserve firepower for potential consumer health deals, such as buying out joint venture partner Novartis or bidding for Pfizer's over-the-counter business.
MULTIPLE MYELOMA DRUG
Further early clinical trial results with GSK's multiple myeloma drug, which targets a protein called BCMA, are being presented at the American Society of Hematology's annual meeting this week.
Miels described the drug - a rival to Genmab and Johnson & Johnson's Darzalex - as "extremely exciting". He also cited the promise of two other experimental programs, NY-ESO and ICOS.
This year, GSK has won approval for three new products - a shingles vaccine, a two-drug HIV cocktail and a three-in-one lung inhaler called Trelegy, the last of which Miels said analysts were "underestimating".
"Those three things are going to keep us pretty busy," Miels said. "The key thing is can we be more commercially assertive in vaccines against Merck, against Gilead in HIV, and against AstraZeneca and Boehringer in asthma and COPD? I think with the changes we are driving in the company we can be."
After these three new drugs there will be a gap in product launches until after 2020 - and a key task for Miels will be to show investors that a more focused pipeline approach, announced by Walmsley in July, can deliver value.
Miels sees clear parallels with AstraZeneca, which has also concentrated its bets in a few core areas in recent years.
"I saw that happen at Astra and I think the conditions are in place where we can do something very, very interesting at GSK."
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Susan Fenton)