Study could slash 20% off Merck's cholesterol meds

As November 16 nears, hard-core pharma-watchers are biting their nails. That's when researchers will unveil the latest trial of Merck's cholesterol meds Vytorin and Zetia. As you know, the study in question puts Merck's drugs up against Abbott Laboratories' drug Niaspan. Negative results for Vytorin and/or Zetia would be yet another blow to Merck's cholesterol franchise, which has already suffered from two not-so-hot study performances.

When the latest trial wrapped, researchers were especially close-mouthed about the results. And the companies themselves say they don't know which drug worked best. But analysts placed their bets almost immediately, saying that Niaspan probably beat out Vytorin and Zetia. "We don't know the data," Leerink Swann's Seamus Fernandez told Bloomberg recently, "Our strong suspicion, though, is that it will more likely than not favor Niaspan.

Fernandez predicted that if Niaspan did win, revenues for Merck's drugs could drop by $800 million a year, or 20 percent. And that's on top of the $480 million those drugs have lost so far this year.

That idea worries some cardiologists who say that patients and doctors shouldn't attach too much importance to this study--known as Arbiter-6 Halts--because it's not large enough to be definitive. Merck is working on such a trial, but it won't be wrapped till 2012. As they wait for the Arbiter results, Merck's science folks are seconding the worried cardiologists. "For a clinician to make a decision based on this is potentially dangerous," scientific affairs chief Richard Pasternak told Bloomberg. Sounds as if there's some nail-biting going on at Merck, too.

- check out the Bloomberg piece