Wyeth says Alzheimer program a justified long-shot

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Wyeth says Alzheimer program a justified long-shot
By Ransdell Pierson
Tuesday, March 20, 2007; 12:18 PM

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The chief financial officer of Wyeth (WYE.N) on Tuesday said the company’s ambitious program to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s disease “will probably fail,” but the risk is justified by potential big payoffs to society and the U.S. drugmaker.

Kenneth Martin, whose company is developing a number of experimental Alzheimer’s treatments with the avid support of Chief Executive Officer Robert Essner, gave the assessment at the annual Lehman Brothers Global Healthcare Conference being held in Miami.

The research program “will probably fail,” he said, because of the difficulty of developing drugs against such a tough disease, which destroys the memory and eventually leads to death and for which there are currently no very effective treatments.

“If we fail, we will be a very strong company” still, he said, due to firm demand for the company’s array of blockbuster vaccines and treatments for other diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.

“But we may not (fail). If we succeed, we will change the world because Alzheimer’s is an incredibly costly, burdensome and difficult problem of society. We will change the world and change the company,” should success be achieved.

Natexis Bleichroeder analyst Corey Davis said Alzheimer’s research “has been a graveyard of failed drugs, so it is not surprising that any such product in development would be deemed at high risk.”

“My guess is Mr. Martin meant that one or more of his products could fail, but that with so many shots on goal, it is a worthwhile investment,” Davis said.

Wyeth spokesman Doug Petkus later told Reuters the company is spending “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” to develop 11 different Alzheimer’s disease treatments and is optimistic, despite Martin’s cautionary remarks.

“We believe this is unprecedented in the industry and are encouraged we will be able to find a therapy to address the upcoming Alzheimer’s epidemic,” Petkus said. “We feel we will be successful, but it is a high-risk proposition. Not all our projects will be successful.”

More than 5 million people in the United States have the disease, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Alzheimer’s Association, up about 10 percent from the group’s previous estimate in 2000.

Two of Wyeth’s most promising Alzheimer’s research projects — aimed at blocking production of amyloid proteins in the brain believed at the root of the degenerative disease — are being conducted in partnership with Irish drugmaker Elan Corp

(ELN.I) (ELN.N).

Davis said Wyeth’s “front-runner” Alzheimer’s product is a humanized monoclonal antibody called bapineuzumab, or AAB-001, being developed with Elan. It attacks the so-called A-beta peptide, which is one component of amyloid plaque that builds up in the brain.

“It is a fairly extensive Phase II trial and we could see interim data from it by mid-year,” said Davis, who called the product a “completely ground-breaking approach.”

“If the antibody can get into the brain and chew up plaque, it could be the first disease-modifying treatment and could be a multibillion-dollar product, but I must stress the word ‘if,”‘ Davis said.

The other Wyeth/Elan product, now in early stage human trials, is a vaccine called ACC-001 designed to coax the body to make its own antibodies against the A-beta peptide, Davis said.

Shares of Elan were down 1.1 percent at $12.86 in late-morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange, after having fallen almost 5 percent earlier in the morning. Wyeth was down 23 cents at $49.61, also on the NYSE.

© 2007 Reuters
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