By John Miller
ZURICH, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Swiss drugmakers Novartis NOVN.S and Lonza LONN.S separately deepened their push into so-called biosimilars, betting cheaper copies of name-brand drugs will make headway among cost-conscious insurers and governments.
Novartis's Sandoz generics unit, among the biggest biosimilars makers, on Tuesday agreed to license from Poland's Polpharma Biologics a version of Biogen's BIIB.O decade-old Tysabri for multiple sclerosis. This is the fifth proposed biosimilar licensed by Sandoz in nine months.
Meanwhile, Lonza announced it had contracted drug substance production for South Korean drugmaker Celltrion's 068270.KS Remsima, a copy of Johnson & Johnson's JNJ.N Remicade against autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
Biosimilar versions of patent-expired blockbusters such as Remicade and Tysabri have advanced in Europe, although U.S. adoption has lagged as drugmakers fiercely defend original versions. Novartis has lost its share of fights, including a recent court setback over Amgen's Enbrel.
Rebates offered to U.S. insurers by drugmakers have also erected barriers, although with markets like MS and immunology each in the tens of billions of dollars the allure remains great. This year, Canada's British Columbia province began switching patients to biosimilars in a bid to save tens of millions of dollars.
Lonza Chief Executive Marc Funk said his Basel-based company, which helps other drug firms outsource their production, would give Celltrion "the flexible capacity and agile teams it needs to respond to evolving market demand".
With their deal, Novartis and Sandoz add to a growing stable of MS drugs, including older Gilenya and newly approved Mayzent, as well as a late-stage biological hopeful, ofatumumab, in its pipeline.
"Biosimilars create competition and cost savings, which are proven to make room in healthcare systems to treat more patients," said Pierre Bourdage, Sandoz's interim biopharmaceuticals head, without giving financial details of the deal for the Polpharma molecule now in late-stage trials.
Novartis could have decent luck with MS biosimilars, analysts said, given the high costs of the debilitating disease for health systems. "The acceptance for cheaper MS medicines will be great, because around half of all patients cannot afford them," ZKB analyst Michael Nawrath wrote in a note.
Copies of biological drugs are called biosimilars because, unlike small-molecule chemicals, they cannot be exactly replicated in the factory. Still, studies show they carry the same potential benefits for patients.
(Reporting by Michael Shields and John Miller; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)
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