Blood Brothers: Chiron and Gen-Probe
The FDA's approval of Procleix HIV-1/ HCV combination assays all but cemented Chiron and Gen-Probe's dominance of DNA-based screening of the US blood supply. The approval changes the economics of providing HIV/ HCV screening to blood banks. The blood banks had been using Procleix or two separate tests supplied by Roche under IND status, paying at cost. Now, they have to pay commercial prices for Procleix. The hike is stretching budgets, but, for a variety of reasons, still more than 70% of US blood banks use Procleix, which is a combination of two assays on one sample.
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Three years into a new CEO's regime, Chiron is trying to forge a unique compromise between research and commercial focus and the stability which comes from a diversified business. But Chiron is at a crossroads: its earnings growth, boosted significantly by a now complete cost-reduction program, doesn't look sustainable without major new products. And those Chiron does not appear to have. Moreover, its major shareholder, Novartis, has an option to buy the company and top management fears they will should the stock show significant signs of weakness, brought on, perhaps, by investments (and consequent earnings reductions) in potential high-growth areas. In effect, Chiron managers are afraid to invest significantly for fear of what Novartis will do should the stock price fall. Moreover, to some degree, Chiron is caught by its business diversity: it can't focus its spending on any one area, particularly biopharmaceuticals, without starving its other businesses--but without a significant increase in R&D spending, particularly in the drug unit, observers don't see how Chiron, which has been uniquely unsuccessful with its pipeline projects, can drive the long-term earnings growth it needs.
Chiron's HCV patents have given it enormous clout over the blood banking market. HCV screening is essential in blood testing. Chiron's leverage makes blood screening a cash cow that is protected from competition in a guaranteed market for at least another six years. Plus, Chiron has effective control over access to the only new and growing portion of the market--NAT, a DNA-based probe methodology that can be used for earlier detection of hepatitis and retrovirus. The question for Chrion is not whether it can benefit from the opportunity in NAT, but how to maximize its returns to generate revenues it can use to fund its long-term gene therapy and genomics programs.
Gen-Probe is one of the few successful players in the emerging field of DNA probes. Long a niche player, it is teaming up with bioMerieux and Chiron to tackle bigger, more complex markets in blood banking and viral and cancer diagnostics. To do this, it needs to acquire a new set of skills.