Cholesterol drugs can save stroke patients' lives too
Study results are 'pretty dramatic' but unlikely to boost anti-cholesterol drug sales.
By Aaron Smith, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Drugs that lower cholesterol also have life-saving potential for stroke patients, according to a study released Thursday. Investing analysts doubt that this new benefit will add momentum to drug sales.

Hospital patients recovering from the most common type of stroke, who took cholesterol-reducing drugs called statins, experienced an 80 percent decline in mortality, said researchers at the International Stroke Conference in Kissimmee, Fla.

"These preliminary results suggest that more work is needed to be done to clarify the role of statins in mortality," said Norrina Allen, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University and a researcher who helped conduct the study for the University HealthSystem Consortium. "There's a potential that all stroke patients who are coming in with acute stroke could be given statins as soon as they reach the hospitals."

Strokes usually occur when clots form in blood vessels leading to the brain, accounting for 83 percent of all strokes, according to the American Stroke Association, which hosted the conference where the study was announced. Allen said the study did not receive funding, but was based on data taken from academic hospitals in the first half of 2004 to try and improve performance.

The study focused on 1,256 patients at 32 academic medical centers treated with lipid-lowering statins during the first 48 hours of their hospitalization.

The study does not name any specific statins or drug makers, but here are the big players with total sales for 2005: Pfizer's (up $0.20 to $25.81, Research) Lipitor, the world's top-selling drug with $12.2 billion, Merck's (up $0.69 to $35.98, Research) Zocor, with $4.4 billion, Bristol-Myers Squibb's (down $0.11 to $22.99, Research) Pravachol, with $2.3 billion, and AstraZeneca's (down $0.01 to $45.53, Research) Crestor, with $1.3 billion. Also, sales for Vytorin, a Zocor-Zetia combination from Merck and Schering-Plough (up $0.59 to $19.33, Research), totaled $2.4 billion in 2005.

Two of these drugs -- Pravachol and Zocor -- are slated to lose patent protection this year, and have declined in sales. Pravachol is expected to lose its patent in April while Zocor is expected to lose its patent in June. Producers of branded statins are expected to lose sales as patients flock to the cheaper generics.

Lipitor sales jumped 12 percent last year. Nonetheless, analysts are worried about the drug's market performance because most of the growth happened in the first half of 2005, then slowed dramatically toward the end of the year. Lipitor sales rose only 1.2 percent in the first four weeks of 2006, lagging the 9 percent gains made by the overall statin market during that time, said Al Rauch, analyst for A.G. Edwards. The specter of a generic Zocor is taking the wind out of Lipitor sales, he said.

A.G. Edwards' Rauch and Deutsche Bank North America analyst Barbara Ryan both said the statin study results were "pretty dramatic," but did not believe that this new report would give Pfizer and other statin makers a lift.

Rauch said the study results are "another positive for the utilization of statins," but he believes they are "probably not going to be a major factor" in driving up sales for the $20 billion statin market. He said that many patients considered at-risk for stroke are already taking the statins for cholesterol-cutting benefits.

Some 40 million to 45 million people are taking statins, said Rauch, and there isn't much room for the market to grow.

"I think a lot of people at risk for strokes probably have high cholesterol, and are taking statins or should be taking a statin," he said. "I see [the report] overall as having a limited impact."

David Moskowitz, analyst for Friedman, Billings & Ramsey, said the study provides "an incremental opportunity" for makers of statins, but "it is safe to assume that many of these patients are already taking statins. For doctors who are on the fence about prescribing statins for patients who are at risk of stroke, this is the kind of information that can help encourage them to make the decision to go ahead and prescribe the product."

Ryan, the analyst from Deutsche Bank North America, said the study results are "good, but it's not going to be that surprising and it's ubiquitous to all statins."

Pfizer is conducting its own Lipitor study, called SPARCL, to see whether the drug reduces incidents of additional strokes in patients who have survived their first stroke. Ryan said the results of the SPARCL study, to be announced later this year, will have a much stronger impact on statin sales.

Allen, the researcher, said the study results were unclear as to whether the stroke patients were already taking statins before they suffered their strokes, or whether they were prescribed statins only after they were admitted to the hospital.

To read more about Lipitor concerns, click here.

The analysts interviewed for this story do not own shares in the companies mentioned here, though Deutsche Bank and FBR seek business with them. Top of page

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