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Pharmaceuticals

Roche Suspends HIV Drug Research

Finding nothing new to offer against HIV, firm calls it quits

by Ann M. Thayer
July 21, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 29

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Credit: Roche
The search for new drugs involves multidisciplinary approaches. Here, a Roche scientist inspects protein crystals for potential drug candidates.
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Credit: Roche
The search for new drugs involves multidisciplinary approaches. Here, a Roche scientist inspects protein crystals for potential drug candidates.

SWISS PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY Roche has discontinued research on HIV therapies after determining that nothing in its pipeline would offer enough benefit over existing drugs to warrant further development. Roche had been investigating several new antiretrovirals, all of which were at the preclinical stage and at least six years away from the market.

Roche will, however, continue to support the few therapies and diagnostics it already makes, according to a company spokeswoman. These include the protease inhibitors Invirase and Viracept (sold outside the U.S.) and the cell-fusion inhibitor Fuzeon.

In 2007, worldwide sales of Fuzeon reached $267 million but dropped 34% in the first quarter of 2008 because of competition from new HIV drugs. In 2006, Roche stopped selling Hivid, which was launched in 1992 and was one of the first three HIV drugs marketed, as other treatments superseded it.

About 30 individual medicines or combinations are available to treat the 33 million people infected with HIV. Another 50 drugs are in clinical development, according to the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. Market research from Datamonitor predicts the global HIV drug market will grow about 3.7% per year to $11.5 billion in 2016.

Roche will redeploy scientists in HIV research to other activities, its spokeswoman says. The company's virology efforts are largely focused on hepatitis C, with three products in clinical trials. If Roche identifies a significant HIV-related breakthrough outside the company, she says it would consider contributing in some way, as it did in developing Fuzeon with the biotech firm Trimeris.

In the past, activists have targeted Roche for its drug-pricing policies in poor countries and the $25,000 annual cost for Fuzeon. The difficult-to-manufacture peptide drug was the first new treatment for drug-resistant patients, points out Jules Levin, executive director of the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project.

AIDS advocacy groups regret the loss of any research efforts. Although a burst of new drugs has hit the market in the past two years, the pipeline is actually pretty skimpy, says Peter Staley, founder of informational website AIDSmeds.com. Most candidates are only in early clinical trials. Roche's commitment to hepatitis C, however, is viewed as important because the disease is a leading cause of death for those people also infected with HIV.

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