By Ludwig Burger

LONDON (Reuters) – Doing things one at a time in drug development is not a luxury that GlaxoSmithKline can afford any longer, the head of pharmaceuticals at Britain’s largest drugmaker told Reuters.

Luke Miels, who joined GSK in September 2017 after a contract dispute with his former employer AstraZeneca, said picking the most promising projects and developing them quickly now takes precedence over spreading the risk of failure.

“In the past, 10 programs were chosen, a budget for eight was allocated. Usually what happened was that time was the trade off that was made,” he said in an interview.

“Now what we do is we pick five or six programs, and concentrate investment there.”

GSK, like rivals, was in the habit of testing new drugs first on patients who had run out of other treatment options. If successful, it would try patients at an earlier stage of their disease, replacing older, established treatments.

In today’s market, where rivals in the United States and China catch up fast if a new class of drug shows promise, GSK has to run costly drug tests on humans in several settings at the same time, even if it means dropping other drug candidates.

“Rather than do things sequentially, you do them in parallel, or as close to parallel as possible,” Miels said.

GSK, which is battling to return to profit growth, has taken this approach for instance with an experimental drug that for now goes by the code name of GSK’916 against multiple myeloma, a common and incurable type of blood cancer.

Likewise, GSK doubled down on its quest to bring a drug known as GSK’165 to market as a rheumatoid arthritis treatment, even after initial results in a mid-stage drug trial did not show a clear enough reading.

“This drug has very interesting effects on pain. That could potentially reduce the use of opioids and pain meds,” Miels said.

More trials will be run to make the pain argument more clearly, he added.

GSK expects a decline of 5%-9% in adjusted earnings per share this year, excluding exchange rate moves, as it suffers from generic competition to its inhalable lung drug Advair and pressure from rival Gilead in HIV treatments.

Miels said a tougher stance on drug prices by U.S. lawmakers and medical insurers was one of the reasons for the need for speed in bringing drugs to market – to try to remain ahead of competitors for as long as possible.

At the same time, rapid growth in the Chinese market was spurring a more sophisticated healthcare system there, with local biotech groups quick to catch up with Western pioneers in drug development, producing similar drugs for their home market.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Mark Potter)