CETP, now there's a drug target that has incinerated a lot of money over the years. Here's a roundup of compounds I posted on back last summer, with links to their brutal development histories. I wondered here about what's going to happen with this class of compounds: will one ever make it as a drug? If it does, will it just end up telling us that there are yet more complications in human lipid handling that we didn't anticipate?
Well, Merck and Lilly are continuing their hugely expensive, long-running atempts to answer these questions. Here's an interview with Merck's Ken Frazier in which he sounds realistic - that is, nervous:
Merck CEO Ken Frazier, speaking in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, said the U.S. drugmaker would continue to press ahead with clinical research on HDL raising, even though the scientific case so far remained inconclusive.
"The Tredaptive failure is another piece of evidence on the side of the scale that says HDL raising hasn't yet been proven," he said.
"I don't think by any means, though, that the question of HDL raising as a positive factor in cardiovascular health has been settled."
Tredaptive, of course, hit the skids just last month. And while its mechanism is not directly relevant to CETP inhibition (I think), it does illustrate how little we know about this area. Merck's anacetrapib is one of the ugliest-looking drug candidates I've ever seen (ten fluorines, three aryl rings, no hydrogen bond donors in sight), and Lilly's compound is only slightly more appealing.
But Merck finds itself having to bet a large part of the company's future in this area. Lilly, for its part, is betting similarly, and most of the rest of their future is being plunked down on Alzheimer's. And these two therapeutic areas have a lot in common: they're both huge markets that require huge clinical trials and rest on tricky fundamental biology. The huge market part makes sense; that's the only way that you could justify the amount of development needed to get a compound through. But the rest of the setup is worth some thought.
Is this what Big Pharma has come to, then? Placing larger and larger bets in hopes of a payoff that will make it all work out? If this were roulette, I'd have no trouble diagnosing someone who was using a Martingale betting system. There are a few differences, although I'm not sure how (or if) they cancel out For one thing, the Martingale gambler is putting down larger and larger amounts of money in an attempt to win the same small payout (the sum of the initial bet!) Pharma is at least chasing a larger jackpot. But the second difference is that the house advantage at roulette is a fixed 5.26% (at least in the US), which is ruinous, but is at least a known quantity.
But mentioning "known quantities" brings up a third difference. The rules of casino games don't change (unless an Ed Thorp shows up, which was a one-time situation). The odds of drug discovery are subject to continuous change as we acquire more knowledge; it's more like the Monty Hall Paradox. The question is, have the odds changed enough in CETP (or HDL-raising therapies in general) or Alzheimer's to make this a reasonable wager?
For the former, well, maybe. There are theories about what went wrong with torcetrapib (a slight raising of blood pressure being foremost, last I heard), and Merck's compound seems to be dodging those. Roche's failure with dacetrapib is worrisome, though, since the official reason there was sheer lack of efficacy in the clinic. And it's clear that there's a lot about HDL and LDL that we don't understand, both their underlying biology and their effects on human health when they're altered. So (to put things in terms of the Monty Hall problem), a tiny door has been opened a crack, and we may have caught a glimpse of some goat hair. But it could have been a throw rug, or a gorilla; it's hard to say.
What about Alzheimer's? I'm not even sure if we're learned as much as we have with CETP. The immunological therapies have been hard to draw conclusions from, because hey, it's the immune system. Every antibody is different, and can do different things. But the mechanistic implications of what we've seen so far are not that encouraging, unless, of course, you're giving interviews as an executive of Eli Lilly. The small-molecule side of the business is a bit easier to interpret; it's an unrelieved string of failures, one crater after another. We've learned a lot about Alzheimer's therapies, but what we've mostly learned is that nothing we've tried has worked much. In Monty Hall terms, the door has stayed shut (or perhaps has opened every so often to provide a terrifying view of the Void). At any rate, the flow of actionable goat-delivered information has been sparse.
Overall, then, I wonder if we really are at the go-for-the-biggest-markets-and-hope-for-the-best stage of research. The big companies are the ones with enough resources to tackle the big diseases; that's one reason we see them there. But the other reason is that the big diseases are the only things that the big companies think can rescue them.