Merck took the unusual step of delaying its earnings release yesterday until after the close of the market. A report on another clinical study of Vytorin (ezetimibe), their drug with Schering-Plough, was coming out, so they put the numbers on hold until after the press release yesterday afternoon. Naturally, this led to a lot of speculation about what was going on. A conspiracy-minded website vastly unfriendly to Schering-Plough suspected some sort of elaborate ruse to drum up publicity.
But that sort of thinking doesn't take you very far, unless you count the distance you rack up going around in circles. As it turned out, the SEAS trial (Simvastatin and Ezetimibe in Aortic Stenosis) was, in fact, very bad publicity indeed for the drug and for both companies. In fact, a real conspiracy would have made sure that these numbers never saw the light of day, or were at least released at 6 PM on a Friday. But no, the spotlight was on them good and proper.
This trial studied patients with chronic aortic stenosis, which is a different condition than classic atherosclerosis. The two have enough similarities, though, that there has been much interest in whether statin treatment could be effective. The primary endpoint, a composite of aortic valve and general cardiovascular events, was missed. Vytorin was no better than placebo. It reached significance against one secondary endpoint, reducing the risk of various ischemic events, but not in any dramatic fashion.
That's not necessarily a surprise, since there's not a well-established therapy for aortic stenosis (thus the trial design versus placebo). As several commenters to the conference call after the press conference pointed out, this shouldn't change clinical practice much at all. But it's not what Merck and Schering-Plough needed to hear, that's for sure, because the sound bite will be "Vytorin Fails Again".
Actually, the sound bite will be even worse than that. There are a lot of headlines this morning about another observation from the SEAS trial: that significantly more patients in the treatment arm of the study were diagnosed with cancer. That's a red warning light, for sure, but in this case we have at least some data to decide how much of one.
For one thing, as far as I know there have been no reports of increased cancer among the patients taking Vytorin out in the marketplace - of course, one could argue that this might have been missed, but if the effect were as large as seen in the SEAS study, I don't think it would have been. Analyses of the earlier Vytorin trials and the ongoing IMPROVE-IT trial versus Zocor have also shown no cancer risk, and the latter trial is continuing. So for now, it would appear that either this was a nasty result by chance, or (a longer shot) that there's something different about the aortic stenosis patients that leads to major trouble with Vytorin.
None of these scientific and statistical arguments, and I mean none of them, will avail Schering-Plough and Merck. Among people who've heard of Vytorin at all, the first thing that will come to mind is "doesn't work", and after today's headlines, the second thing that will come to mind is "cancer". Just what you want, to put out press releases that your compound, even though it failed to work again, isn't actually a cancer risk. You really couldn't do worse; a gang of saboteurs couldn't have done worse. Of course, there's no such gang: the companies themselves authorized these trials, thinking that there were home runs to be hit. But all these sidelines - familial hypercholesteremia, aortic stenosis - have only sown fear, confusion, and doubt. The only thing that I can see rescuing Vytorin as a useful drug is for the IMPROVE-IT results to show really robust efficacy in its real-world patients. And I wonder if even that could be enough.