Roche pursues a new eye-care angle

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Roche's bid to carve out space in eye care got attention with the Tuesday release of Phase II data about its experimental drug lampalizumab, which focuses not on the heated wet AMD or diabetic macular edema markets but on dry age-related macular degeneration. The treatment's target is even more specific, in that it is for geographic atrophy, an irreversible loss of retinal tissue, and is part of advanced AMD.

There are no approved drugs for geographic atrophy (GA). If Roche gets there first, it could give the drug maker some needed breathing room. It's been squeezed in the wet AMD space by Regeneron's Eylea as well as by off-label use of Roche's own Avastin, which is cheaper than Roche's own wet AMD drug, Lucentis.

Jefferies analyst Jeffery Holford wrote in a Wednesday research note that a high unmet need adds to the drug's appeal, and that even if Roche were not to lead in the space, the potential audience is large enough for competing treatments.

Results show the drug slowed GA progression by 44% after 18 months, among patients who received monthly injections, with efficacy surfacing six months into testing. Roche says the data showed “no unexpected or unmanageable serious AEs, no death or ocular serious AEs suspected to be caused by a study drug and no ocular serious AEs in study eye leading to treatment discontinuation.”

This may be of note for those on the Roche beat, because Lucentis may be set to take another hit in the diabetic macular edema space: as noted by Forbes last month, Regeneron's Eylea may be elbowing its way into this Lucentis indication, with an added benefit other than efficacy. Unlike Lucentis, Eylea's label does not carry a fatality warning.

The possible pipeline success is just part of what's been a contraction-expansion story for Roche this year. The 2013 narrative has included buying up hematology diagnostics firm Constitutional Medical Investors, landing priority review for its son-of-Rituxan cancer treatment, ending development of its diabetes medication aleglitazar over “safety signals and lack of efficacy,” and cutting jobs in Indiana.

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