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Lilly competitor claims early success with Alzheimer's drug

December 3, 2014

Biogen Idec Inc. shares rose Tuesday after the company said its Alzheimer’s drug showed promising early results and will be quickly moved into a final-stage trial.

In a small, early-stage trial, Biogen’s drug BIIB037 reduced beta amyloid in the brain, said Doug Williams, executive vice president of research and development. Beta amyloid, a protein fragment that creates plaque tangles in the brain, is thought to be a key component in Alzheimer’s disease.

The biotechnology company will now push rapidly ahead into an area where other drugmakers have tried and failed. Eli Lilly and Co.’s drug solanezumab, and bapineuzumab—a drug developed jointly by Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Elan Corp.—also target amyloid plaques. Both medicines failed to show a significant effect on the disease in final-stage tests on thousands of patients.

Indianapolis-based Lilly is currently retesting solanezumab in earlier-stage patients, while bapineuzumab has been scrapped.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease, which is progressive, causes symptoms including memory loss, confusion, and behavior changes. There is no approved cure for Alzheimer’s.

A successful drug to treat Alzheimer's would be a gold mine, with potential sales topping $20 billion a year, analysts say.

Shares in Biogen, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gained 6.4 percent, to $328.27 each, on Tuesday, the biggest one-day rise since July.

Cognition improvement

Biogen’s drug improved cognition in patients with early signs of the disease 54 weeks after starting treatment, Williams said. The results were pulled from an interim analysis of about 200 patients in the Phase 1 trial, according to the company. Biogen will present full results of the trial at a medical meeting next year, which the company hasn’t named, Williams said.

While Biogen and Lilly’s drugs both target beta amyloid, they attack different forms of the peptide, which could lead to different trial results, wrote Robyn Karnauskas, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, in a presentation for clients.

Biogen didn’t give details on when the final-stage trial would start. Lilly’s trial is expected to have results in 2016, and Biogen’s may finish in 2017 or 2018, said Mark Schoenebaum, an analyst at Evercore ISI, in a conference call with clients today.

Biogen is best known for its multiple sclerosis drug Tecfidera, approved last year in the U.S. “The thesis has morphed from being Tecfidera-focused to ‘What is next? What are you going to for us now?’” said Schoenebaum.

In Alzheimer’s, the biotech firm has “multiple shots on the goal,” said Karnauskas. The company has a deal to develop and commercialize BIIB037 with Japanese drugmaker Eisai Co., and the companies also have an agreement for three other experimental drugs to fight the disease. Biogen bought BIIB037, or aducanumab, from Neurimmune Therapeutics in 2007.

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