AstraZeneca, the drug company, said it was halting a 15,000-patient study of its blockbuster cholesterol medicine Crestor, because early findings already proved the drug significantly reduces the risk of heart problems.
The success of the trial raised hopes that Crestor could be expanded for use in millions of new patients, and that the findings will give it a new marketing edge over struggling rivals.
The AstraZeneca study, codenamed Jupiter, was designed to see if Crestor reduced heart attacks and other problems in at-risk patients, even if they did not have high cholesterol. The study has been halted after independent monitors saw "unequivocal evidence of a reduction in cardiovascular morbidity".
The news came a day after scientists said two other cholesterol drugs, Vytorin and Zetia, sold by Merck and Schering-Plough of the US, were no more efficient at preventing the furring of arteries than older, cheaper drugs. Doctors on a panel at a cardiology conference in Chicago said the drugs should be prescribed less often, a surprisingly negative recommendation that sent Merck and Schering-Plough shares plunging yesterday.
Analysts said the Vytorin study could hit sales of a drug that is currently the most potent rival to Crestor, while the outcome of the Jupiter study led at least one analyst to increase his forecast for sales of Crestor. Benjamin Yeoh of Dresdner Kleinwort said he was upgrading his forecast for annual sales of $5.5bn by 2012.
Crestor is AstraZeneca's third-biggest drug and one of its fastest growing. It had sales of $2.8bn last year, up 33 per cent. However, it is facing legal challenges that could allow copycat rivals on to the market, and the whole market for cholesterol-lowering drugs, called statins, has been under pressure since the earliest products lost patent protection and cheap generic versions became available.
Jupiter was one of several big studies, so far including 64,000 Crestor users, in which Astra-Zeneca is searching for additional scientific claims and potential new uses for the drug, which it hopes will give it an edge over cheaper, older drugs.
AstraZeneca shares rose 36p to 1,884p yesterday.Reuse content