Marriage of minds may soothe the nation's heads

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Some years ago, Glaxo's focus of attention moved from the gut to the head. While its present fortunes are built on the anti-ulcer drug Zantac, its future may lie with Imigran, for migraine and cluster headaches. Wellcome was also pursuing migraine, and was expected to bring Imigran's main competitor to the market in a couple of years. Industry observers believe that because it has a monopoly, the Glaxo drug is very expensive and that competition would have been beneficial to the consumer.

The two drugs adopt a similar approach, acting on a chemical messenger between the nerve cells. It is too early to say which is more effective.

According to Sue Hughes, of the international pharmaceutical industry journal, Scrip: "Sumatriptan [the generic name for Imigran] is going to be big for Glaxo." It is likely to remain a prescription drug.

Wellcome's main line has been in anti-viral preparations, according to Ms Hughes. Its biggest product is acyclovir, marketed as Zovirax. This is now sold over the counter in the form of a cream for treatment of cold sores.

Although acyclovir is the most profitable, Wellcome's most famous anti-viral drug is AZT, used in the treatment of Aids. In recent years, Wellcome's share price has fluctuated wildly as varying accounts of AZT's efficacy have filtered out from clinical trials. In search of a more effective anti-Aids therapy, Wellcome and Glaxo have joined forces to develop Lamivudine, which is now in clinical trials.

Infectious diseases caused by viruses have always presented a much more difficult target for drug designers than bacterial disease. Antibiotics have largely eradicated bacterial infections in the West but do not work against viruses.

The two growth areas of drug research in recent years have been anti-virals and neurologicals. With sumatriptan, Glaxo is already well along the road in exploring drugs which can act on the brain. It has on the market another serotonin-acting drug, ondansetron, this time for use in countering the nausea which cancer patients experience during chemotherapy. The purchase of Wellcome would bring Glaxo its expertise in anti-viral research, and prevent one of the main competitors to the migraine drug reaching the market.

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