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January 23, 2005
A Trial Too Far
So Johnson and Johnson is the latest company to try to broaden their market for a drug and run into cardiovascular side effects. Their Alzheimer's drug Reminyl (galantamine), makes some money, but is hardly a blockbuster. It's a natural product (derived from daffodil bulbs, of all things), and it's a cholinesterase inhibitor, the same mechanism as the two other Alzheimer's drugs on the market. None of them are gigantic sellers, because they don't do all that much for people, especially once they have serious symptoms. But if you could show beneficial effects in the pre-Alzheimer's population, then the potential number of patient could be much larger. I should, in fairness, point out that the potential benefits to the patients could be larger, too: earlier treatment before the disease has had more time to do irreversible damage.
Cholinesterase inhibition is a pretty crude tool to help Alzheimer's, but it's all that we have at the moment. The idea is the turn up the volume of neuronal signals that use acetylcholine as a transmitter molecule, by inhibiting the enzyme that would break it down and sweep it out of the synapse. I don't see an obvious connection between this mechanism and the cardiovascular effects that showed up in J&J's trial.
This is another illustration of the same thing that's bringing down the COX-2 inhibitors. The larger the population that takes your drug, and the more clinical trials you run, the better your chance of finding the side effects. All drugs have side effects, and if you turn over enough rocks you'll see them. But without expanding the patient population, you won't be helping all the people you could help, and you won't be making all the money you could make. It's like walking through a minefield. It's what we do for a living over here. What a business!
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