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Drugmakers' hopes for gene therapy rise despite tiny sales in Europe

Drugmakers' hopes for gene therapy rise despite tiny sales in Europe
August 8, 2017

LONDON (Reuters) - The science of gene therapy is finally delivering on its potential, and drugmakers are now hoping to produce commercially viable medicines after tiny sales for the first two such treatments in Europe.

Thanks to advances in delivering genes to targeted cells, more treatments based on fixing faulty DNA in patients are coming soon, including the first ones in the United States.

Yet the lack of sales for the two drugs already launched to treat ultra-rare diseases in Europe highlights the hurdles ahead for drugmakers in marketing new, extremely expensive products for genetic diseases.

After decades of frustrations, firms believe there are now major opportunities for gene therapy in treating inherited conditions such as haemophilia. They argue that therapies offering one-off cures for intractable diseases will save health providers large sums in the long term over conventional treatments which each patient may need for years.

In the past five years, European regulators have approved two gene therapies - the first of their kind in the world, outside China - but only three patients have so far been treated commercially.

UniQure's (QURE.O) Glybera, for a very rare blood disorder, is now being taken off the market given lack of demand.

The future of GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK.L) Strimvelis for ADA-SCID - or "bubble boy" disease, where sufferers are highly vulnerable to infections - is uncertain after the company decided to review and possibly sell its rare diseases unit.

Glybera, costing around $1 million per patient, has been used just once since approval in 2012. Strimvelis, at about $700,000, has seen two sales since its approval in May 2016, with two more patients due to be treated later this year.