By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - AstraZeneca has enrolled the first patient into a final-stage clinical trial of a new drug for a rare type of leukemia as the group's new CEO delivers on a promise to accelerate its oncology programs.
Britain's second-biggest drugmaker said on Thursday the Phase III clinical trial would test moxetumomab pasudotox in patients with hairy cell leukemia who have not responded to or have relapsed after standard therapy.
AstraZeneca also announced plans to move two other oncology drugs - olaparib for ovarian cancer and selumetinib for lung cancer - into Phase III trials in the second half of 2013.
New Chief Executive Pascal Soriot has made accelerating the company's cancer drug pipeline a priority as he tries to rebuild its portfolio of new medicines after past setbacks that have undermined near-term growth hopes.
The drugmaker badly needs new products to revive its sales line because its current top sellers have lost, or are about to lose, patent protection.
Accelerating the drug pipeline means taking more calibrated risks, according to Menelas Pangalos, head of innovative medicines.
"We are becoming more aggressive as a company and less fearful of taking smart risks," Pangalos told Reuters.
AstraZeneca previously said at an investor day in March that it expected to start Phase III trials on the three drugs sometime in 2013. It believes olaparib and selumetinib each have the potential for peak sales of more than $1 billion a year, while moxetumomab sales are estimated at up to $1 billion.
Confidence in prospects for the three new cancer drugs has been building following promising results from initial tests, more of which are now being made public.
Data on both olaparib and selumetinib are being presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) congress in Chicago from May 31 May to June 4 and scientific abstracts, or brief summaries, from studies involving the drugs were published on ASCO's website on Thursday (http://chicago2013.asco.org/).
Moxetumomab is jumping to Phase III testing in a trial sponsored by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, after impressive results in Phase I.
(Editing by Jane Merriman)