GlaxoSmithKline IS being sued by the Australian inventors of its controversial flu treatment Relenza, who accuse the giant drug maker of failing to properly promote the product.
The Melbourne-based biotech group Biota, which licensed Relenza in 1990 to what was then Glaxo, says it has been driven to the courts after two years of fruitless negotiations with GSK. The product failed to live up to its early promise and had sales last year of less than £10m, despite being approved in 70 countries.
"Relenza was a breakthrough influenza drug that had great potential but it was effectively abandoned at birth," Biota's chief executive, Peter Molloy, said. The company says GSK breached the terms of its licensing deal by failing to launch Relenza in a number of countries, by dropping further studies that may have widened its use, and by not pursuing fully ways to improve the inhaler used for taking the drug. It is demanding unspecified damages, which could total up to $100m (£56m).
GSK said it was surprised by Biota's lawsuit but would not comment further.
The high hopes for Relenza began to falter when the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the NHS's arbiter of value for money, ruled that the drug would only marginally improve the treatment of flu and should be prescribed only in very limited circumstances. It was a ruling that infuriated Sir Richard Sykes, then chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, so much that he threatened to move the company's headquarters to the US.
Biota is aggrieved that Relenza was sidelined after the merger of Glaxo Wellcome with SmithKline Beecham to create GSK in 2000. GSK has been arguing in private that it pulled applications to launch the drug as a prevention for flu after it became clear it would not get approval in the US.
Relenza was discovered by Biota scientists in 1989 and was the first in a new generation of anti-flu drugs, called neuraminidase inhibitors, which are effective against both major strains of influenza.
However, the fact that it has to be used with an inhaler put it at an immediate disadvantage to a rival pill from Roche, the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant.