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Salix Pharmaceuticals focuses on gastrointestinal market for opportunities The Bridgewater-based company has increased its sales force and sees research, recruiting possibilities in NJ

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Mark McKenna, senior vice president and general manager of Salix Pharmaceuticals with Salix mascot, Gut Guy.
Mark McKenna, senior vice president and general manager of Salix Pharmaceuticals with Salix mascot, Gut Guy. - ()

Bridgewater-based Salix Pharmaceuticals specializes in treatments for gastrointestinal disorders, and this year will look to boost its education of primary care physicians on irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders. It is open to the possibility of partnering with state universities on research projects.

The pharmaceutical company was acquired by Valeant Pharmaceuticals in 2015 in a stock and cash deal valued at roughly $14.5 billion. Shortly thereafter, Salix’s headquarters were moved to Bridgewater from Raleigh, NC, and since then, the acquisition has paid off handsomely for Valeant.

Salix’s drug Xifaxan, which treats irritable bowel syndrome and chronic liver disease, was still in development during the acquisition. It is now Salix’s best-selling drug, bringing in roughly $1 billion in revenue per year.

Salix accounted for 20 percent of Valeant’s Branded RX Segment (sales of branded prescription drugs) product sales in 2016, up from 13 percent in 2015, according to Valeant’s most recent 10K filing. Valeant produce nearly $9.7 billion in total revenue in 2016, up from $8.2 billion in 2014, the year before it acquired Salix.

Salix Senior Vice President and General Manager Mark McKenna, who was hired shortly after the acquisition, told NJBIZ in an interview that one of the company’s major points of growth is through the education of primary care physicians in both the state and around the country on irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal disorders.

McKenna explained that Salix and Valeant were able to overcome challenges last year when Valeant considered selling Salix, but was made stronger by keeping it.  “I was appointed to this role shortly after the acquisition and we’ve gone through some challenges with respect to potential public divestiture,” McKenna told NJBIZ. In 2016, “That was an opportunity for Valeant to understand the value of this business and realize [Salix] is worth a lot more to them than it could be to anyone else.”

In the first quarter, Salix hired 200 sales and marketing representatives to focus on the primary care physician market, a market that the company had never specialized in.

“We shifted our marketing mix from direct-to-consumer advertising to expanding our salesforce to work with primary care physicians,” McKenna said. “We didn’t want to educate consumers and then go see their PCPs [primary care physicians] and have their PCPs not be familiar with IBS.”

That shift is what is expected to help drive business going forward, because there is a need among primary care physicians in the state and around the country to learn more about the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, said McKenna.

“The fact is that 70 percent of all patients with irritable bowel syndrome present first in primary care, and they often spend years going from doctor to doctor and eventually end up at a specialist,” said McKenna. “[Before this year] we didn’t have a team in primary care to take advantage of that and to make sure physicians were educated when patients came in and asked about it.”

McKenna added, “We believe that through education, we can unlock this opportunity in primary care in terms of New Jersey…we’re spending millions of dollars on physician education around this disease and making sure PCPs understand how to treat IBS and how to diagnose it. We’re sponsoring associations here in NJ to primary care associations to help spread the word.”

He also said the company would look to increase its research partnerships with academia, particularly in New Jersey, after a successful collaboration with the University of Chicago. In 2015 Salix sponsored a study by University of Chicago which found that Salix’s drug, Relistor, typically used to relieve constipation as a result of taking opioid-based pain killers, extended the life of patients suffering from pancreatic cancer.

“A lot of the innovations in the gastrointestinal space are not coming from us, they are coming from academia, and they are coming from smaller pharma companies that focus on researching and developing innovations,” McKenna said. “We have an aggressive internal development platform but we have to realize there are better technologies outside of us and we have to harness that.”

Research, recruiting capabilities

McKenna noted that the company would be looking to work on research projects with universities in New Jersey, which has one of the largest academic environments in the country.

“I would love to have Rutgers give me a call,” he said.

McKenna said that moving to New Jersey has given Salix strategic advantages not only in terms of location, research and recruiting, but also because of the large pool of patients. “Almost a third of the patients in the United States with IBS are in the Northeast, so it makes it easier to recruit patients for advisory boards and different initiatives,” he said.

The one issue with New Jersey, as a number of business trade organizations have pointed out recently, is high property taxes, which McKenna said he hopes can be lowered. “If we hire a person from, say, Texas, the taxes are going to seem a bit high,” he said.

Despite that, McKenna said he sees a bright future for the company in the state. In the near term, Salix plans to double its investment in research and development, and has a number of drugs in the pipeline for which it has high hopes.

In June, the Food and Drug Administration accepted Salix’s drug Plenvu Next Generation drug for testing, and if approved, will be Salix’s next-generation bowel preparation drug that patients take before getting colonoscopies. If approved, the new drug can be taken in a lower dose than Salix’s First version of Plenvu, and will taste better, McKenna said.

The company also completed a phase two program for a drug to treat a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease known as ulcerative colitis. “We have a number of molecules in the pipeline and we’re also looking externally at licensing opportunities,” McKenna said.

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Vince Calio

Vince Calio

Vince Calio covers health care and manufacturing for NJBIZ. You can contact him at vcalio@njbiz.com.

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