(Reuters) - Eli Lilly and Co's experimental pill for rheumatoid arthritis proved superior to Abbvie Inc's leading injectable Humira treatment in a large study, which analysts said could prod them to raise sales forecasts for the medicine.
Lilly said on Wednesday it was the first study to show that a once-daily oral treatment was superior to $13 billion-a-year Humira, the world's best-selling drug, in improving signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
It was the fourth successful late-stage trial for Lilly's medicine, called baricitinib, which it is developing in partnership with Incyte Corp.
"What is disclosed is quite impressive - about as good an outcome as Lilly could hope for," Sanford Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson said in a research note.
Baricitinib works through a similar mechanism as Pfizer Inc's approved twice-daily Xeljanz pill for rheumatoid arthritis, by blocking proteins called Janus kinases that cause inflammation. Xeljanz, with annual sales of $500 million, has not yet become the blockbuster product Wall Street had hoped, when it was approved in 2012.
If approved, baricitinib could achieve annual sales of $831 million by 2020, Anderson said, adding he may raise his forecast as more data is made public. Incyte would collect a royalty of about 20 percent on sales, he added.
Baricitinib met its primary goal in the latest study by proving superior to placebo after 12 weeks, as judged by its ability to produce at least a 20 percent improvement in disease severity.
In another arm of the trial, baricitinib at 12 weeks was superior to Humira on key secondary objectives related to the number of patients achieving at least 20 percent improvement, as well as in improvement based upon another standard arthritis measure called a DAS28-hsCRP score.
Moreover, after 24 weeks of treatment, baricitinib was shown to be better than placebo at preventing further structural joint damage, Lilly said.
Treatment benefits on all measures continued through a full year of therapy, Lilly said. Lilly plans to release full data at a November scientific meeting.
Analysts said more data is needed, including how many patients achieved 50 percent or 70 percent reductions in disease severity.
The number of serious side effects seen with baricitinib were similar to placebo, while those taking Humira had fewer side effects than placebo. Serious infection rates were similar in all patient groups, Lilly said.
Shares of Lilly were down 0.3 percent in morning trading, while those of Incyte rose 5 percent.
(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)