By Ben Hirschler
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Though speculation is rife of a new Pfizer bid, AstraZeneca's chief executive is not holed up with advisers in London or New York. Instead, he has spent the last three days immersed in heart science in Barcelona.
"The only thing I can tell you is I am here - and imagine where I would be if something was happening!" Pascal Soriot told Reuters on the sidelines of the European Society of Cardiology congress, the world's largest heart meeting.
Strict British takeover rules limit what Soriot and other players can say about Pfizer's abortive attempt to buy AstraZeneca and the possibility of a resumption of talks.
But chatter among investors that Pfizer will come back has boosted shares in Britain's second biggest drugmaker more than 10 percent since the middle of last month, and the ending of the first of a two-stage cooling-off period on Aug. 26.
While Pfizer cannot launch another public bid until late November, AstraZeneca can now invite it back for talks and Pfizer also has one shot at making a private approach.
Although the saga may not be over, Soriot remains adamant AstraZeneca has a strong independent future.
"We are making good progress with the pipeline and everything so far – touch wood – is going in the right direction," he said. "We’re back to normal."
Soriot has spent his time in Barcelona focused on the heart drug Brilinta, which AstraZeneca flagged as worth a potential $3.5 billion-a-year in a strategy update that formed a central plank of its defense against Pfizer.
Sales of the drug have disappointed investors so far, totaling only $216 million in the first half of 2014, but they should pick up following the closure of a U.S. probe into a big clinical trial that had worried some doctors, Soriot said.
“It’s very clear that Brilinta will, actually, in the end make it," Soriot said, adding he had been encouraged by feedback from key opinion leaders in Barcelona, as well a new study showing the drug was safe to use in ambulances.
The next focus for AstraZeneca's research team is the European Society of Medical Oncology in Madrid at the end of September, when it will showcase new clinical data on cancer drugs seen as the highlight of its forthcoming products.
Doctors and investors are looking particularly for news about a novel two-drug combination for lung cancer designed to boost the body's immune system, although Soriot said the amount of patient data available in Madrid on the treatment - MEDI4736 plus tremelimumab - would be less than initially expected.
"The good news is that the product was well tolerated and we’ve explored additional dosing regimens, but the other side of that is that it is delaying us probably by six to eight weeks in terms of ability to scale up and expand the patient cohort," he said.
A large element of AstraZeneca's defense against Pfizer's takeover attempt was the argument that a mega-merger would disrupt important drug development programs, especially in cancer, at a time when the science is delivering.
The frantic weeks in April and May when Soriot worked round the clock on the Pfizer bid - as well as having to answer to politicians agitated by what would have been Britain's biggest ever foreign takeover - had been "very, very distracting", he said.
Soriot also argued that recent advances in research laboratories across the pharmaceutical industry showed that companies should be spending their money on innovation rather than cost-cutting - and tax-saving - acquisitions.
Optimism about drug industry innovation, at a low ebb a couple of years ago, has recovered lately thanks to a number of advances with practice-changing new medicines.
"Turning to a model of slash-and-burn I don’t think is the way forward for the industry. I think there is enough innovation," Soriot said.
Many of the biggest advances have been seen in cancer treatment but cardiologists also had something to celebrate this week in Barcelona, after a new Novartis drug produced strikingly good results in heart failure.
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Sophie Walker)