Sanofi (SAN), unlike rivals such as Merck & Co., won’t push hard to find an Alzheimer’s treatment because the science isn’t advanced enough to justify the costs to develop a drug, Chief Executive Officer Chris Viehbacher said.
Sanofi, the French drugmaker that has gained 42 percent in the past year, “definitely” won’t commit major resources seeking to discover an Alzheimer’s therapy, Viehbacher said, in contrast to the strategy announced by rivals such as Merck, Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY:US), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ:US) and Pfizer Inc. (PFE:US)
Drug companies are vying to be the first with an effective drug for the mind-robbing condition. The most common of dementia illnesses, it’s expected to affect 65 million people worldwide by 2030 and a treatment that can slow the disease’s progress promises tens of billions of dollars in sales. There have been 101 failures since 1998, according to the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, including setbacks last year in late-stage clinical trials by Pfizer, J&J and Elan Corp.
“I think we have to do a lot more basic science work to understand what’s going on,” Viehbacher said in an interview in San Diego at the annual meeting of PhRMA, the industry’s Washington-based lobbying group. “We really, at best, partially understand the cause of the disease. It’s hard to come up with meaningful targets.”
The drugs in last year’s trials, solanezumab and bapineuzumab, targeted the build-up of plaque in patients’ brain called amyloid. The hypothesis was that by clearing the plaque or stopping it from forming, therapies might be able to stop damage that eventually leads to cognitive decline, loss of function, and dementia.
Viehbacher said more research needs to be done before taking drugs into expensive, later-stage trials.
“We start with the premise that what we know isn’t adequate in describing this,” he said. “Unless we’ve got better targets, we’re not really making any progress.”
The first Alzheimer’s drugs, should they prove successful, would lead to a market worth $20 billion, Barbara Ryan, a former analyst with Deutsche Bank, estimated last year.
Viehbacher said an initiative by the U.S. government to map the brain could prove helpful in finding ways to treat Alzheimer’s, as could more collaboration across the industry. But he warned against pushing therapies into late-stage trials without proof of what causes the disease. “We have to be humble in front of science,” he said.
Sanofi’s competitors are moving ahead. Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, has a drug in the second of three phases of testing before possible approval by U.S. regulators, with plans to take it into the final stage. The medicine, called MK-8931, also targets amyloid plaque build-up. Lilly of Indianapolis is continuing to study solanezumab, and has another compound in Phase 2 testing. New York-based Pfizer has two drugs in development as well.
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