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December 4, 2006

PHARMACEUTICALS

Pfizer Pulls Torcetrapib

Loss leaves a gaping hole in company's late-stage pipeline

Lisa M. Jarvis

Pfizer dropped a bombshell over the weekend by pulling the plug on what is considered the most critical product in its new drug pipeline, the cholesterol agent torcetrapib. The company?s shares were down as much as 15% on Monday, the first day of trading following the news.

"This spells the death of what is arguably the most important development program at Pfizer," says Morgan Stanley stock analyst Jami Rubin, who notes that the scientific community was particularly shocked by the news.

Pfizer halted development of the drug after an independent data safety monitoring board found a significant rise in mortality rates among patients taking both torcetrapib and Pfizer's Lipitor cholesterol drug. The board's analysis of a Phase III study of 15,000 patients showed that 82 deaths occurred in torcetrapib/Lipitor patients, compared with 51 deaths in patients taking Lipitor alone.

Torcetrapib is part of an emerging class of drugs that aim to raise levels of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" cholesterol, by blocking cholesterol ester transfer protein (CETP). The drug was meant to be a companion to Lipitor, Pfizer's top-selling product, which lowers low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol.

Concerns over the safety of torcetrapib had been raised as early as last March, when Pfizer said it caused a rise in systolic blood pressure. But the company continued to display strong confidence in the drug, focusing on its blockbuster potential at a meeting with financial analysts just last week (C&EN, Dec. 4, page 14).

The loss of this critical product will undoubtedly push Pfizer to accelerate its plans to cut costs and improve operating efficiencies. Last week, Pfizer said it would trim its U.S. sales force by about 20%, eliminating roughly 2,000 jobs. The company will also ramp up its licensing efforts in order to maintain its goal of bringing six new drugs to the market annually starting in 2010.

The failure of torcetrapib puts a cloud over other CETP inhibitors in development, including products in the pipelines of Merck and Roche. "It's the result nobody wanted to see and probably means no CETP inhibitors will reach the market until their benefits have been clearly demonstrated in large outcomes trials," says Deutsche Bank analyst Barbara Ryan.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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