By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline's <GSK.L> new chief executive, who has already made her mark with plans to divest some nutritional products, will turn next week to the main business of focusing the company's pipeline of new drugs.
Despite her non-pharmaceutical background in consumer brands, Emma Walmsley sees improving drug research productivity as her top priority, and she wants Britain's biggest drugmaker to have fewer but potentially more lucrative new medicine launches in future.
That means axing or licensing out some experimental drugs in non-core therapy areas, while boosting investment - as well as potential early-stage acquisitions - in the most promising fields, according to company insiders.
Even after recent expansion of GSK's vaccines and consumer health units, pharmaceuticals still account for nearly 70 percent of group operating profits.
Yet while GSK now has leading positions in vaccines and consumer health, it has a lackluster record in prescription medicines and has not come up with the kind of multibillion-dollar products launched by big pharma rivals in recent years.
Walmsley will flesh out her plans for overhauling drug research when she presents second quarter results on July 26.
She has already flagged her readiness to scrap products not generating sufficient value with plans to sell off malted drink Horlicks in Britain and MaxiNutrition, while considering the disposal of older antibiotics.
Describing the approach after presenting her first set of results in April, she said: "We will need to be switching off some areas."
The goal is to sharpen what is currently one of the more diverse drug pipelines in the pharmaceuticals industry, spread across a wide range of therapy areas.
In some fields, like respiratory and HIV medicine, GSK has a clear leading position. But it lags in others such as cardiovascular, rare diseases and diabetes, and some investors worry it has been spreading its R&D budget too thinly.
The result can be sub-optimal product launches, such as Tanzeum for type 2 diabetes, which has generated disappointing sales after GSK launched the injection behind rival medicines from Novo Nordisk <NOVOb.CO> and AstraZeneca <AZN.L>.
Others, like a novel pill for heart disease, have flopped in tests even before getting to market, while its lupus drug Benlysta has failed to hit initial blockbuster sales forecasts, despite GSK spending $3 billion to buy the firm that invented it.
In prioritizing areas where GSK has deep scientific and market expertise, Walmsley wants the R&D and commercial departments at GSK to work together much more closely in future.
In some ways, GSK looks set to follow in the footsteps of its smaller British rival AstraZeneca <AZN.L>, which has divested a large number of non-core drug projects recently as it concentrates on core areas like cancer.
Significantly, former AstraZeneca executive Luke Miels will be a key lieutenant for Walmsley during the shake-up. He will join GSK in September, several months later than planned due to a legal tussle with his former employer.
Analysts and investors have welcomed the idea of rationalizing GSK's R&D, but caution it will be a long haul.
"It’s a company which has struggled to do what you would hope a pharmaceutical company would do, which is do the R&D and successfully get the products through," said Insight Investment fund manager Tim Rees.
Rees said an R&D revamp made sense but it would take 5-7 years to yield results.
Fortunately, Walmsley has a window to make the changes. GSK is not expecting its next wave of new drugs until after 2020 and also has no significant patent expiries, barring the imminent loss of protection on lung drug Advair, until 2026.
(Additional reporting by Simon Jessop; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)