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J&J bets focus on tumor microenvironment will build it into a top cancer company

In the realm of cancer drug development, Johnson & Johnson is not the first or even second name that comes to mind, even though the company has about $3.5 billion in oncology sales each year from four marketed drugs. J&J is hoping to improve its ranking from a spot in the top 10, and has retooled its pipeline strategy and oncology R&D group with the aim to break into the top five by 2014.

At the heart of this plan is a scientific strategy put in place by William Hait, J&J's global therapeutic area head for oncology R&D. Acting on observations made during his career in academia and clinical practice, Hait turned the oncology R&D organization on its head to reorganize around one area of cancer biology: the tumor microenvironment.

The change in scientific focus from J&J's previous target-by-target approach led the company to recruit new talent and to create biomarker and translational medicine groups.

It also led to the 2009 acquisition of Cougar Biotechnology Inc. for $1 billion in cash to gain abiraterone acetate. Abiraterone is in late-stage development to treat castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) by inhibiting CYP17, an enzyme produced in the stroma that contributes to tumor growth via its role in steroid synthesis.

Interim data from the first of two Phase III trials of abiraterone, expected in early fall, will thus mark an important milestone for the oncology group's transformation.

Going forward, Hait hopes to transform the way cancer is managed by preventing it from developing in the first place. The pharma's first attempt at this approach is siltuximab, an antibody against IL-6, which is believed to be critical in the development of multiple myeloma (MM).

Change in focus

In a presentation to investors in

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