An insulin alternative?

Drug makers Amylin and Eli Lilly say Byetta hypoglycemia risk one-sixth that of insulin. But new findings unlikely to boost sales, according to an analyst.

By Aaron Smith, staff writer

CHICAGO ( -- Diabetics taking the blood-sugar drug Byetta had about one-sixth the risk of hypoglycemia compared to those taking insulin, according to study results from Byetta-makers Amylin and Lilly.

Diabetics taking the injectable drug Byetta, which controls blood-sugar levels, combined with the drug metformin had a 2.6 percent chance of suffering hypoglycemia, said Eli Lilly & Co. (Charts, Fortune 500) and Amylin Pharmaceuticals (Charts) on Sunday.

The companies, which made the announcement at the annual conference of the American Diabetes Association, said patients taking insulin with metformin had a 17.4 percent chance of suffering hypoglycemia -- about six times the risk with Byetta.

But these findings, although new, highlight advantages to Byetta that are already well-known, said Jon LeCroy, analyst for Natexis Bleichroeder. Though the companies will undoubtedly use them in marketing the drug, they're unlikely to boost sales, said LeCroy.

"That's been the advantage of Byetta all along and it's not that surprising," said LeCroy.

"I think they would use it to market the drug, but my guess is that the docs already know that."

Hypoglycemia, or low blood-sugar, is a dangerous condition that haunts diabetics, who have difficulty producing their own insulin, which controls blood-sugar levels. Metformin is a commonly-prescribed generic treatment for diabetes and is often included in drug combinations.

Byetta, which is based on the saliva of the Gila monster, is a relatively new but fast-growing drug that was launched into the U.S. market in 2005. Byetta sales totaled $430 million for Amylin in 2006, with Lilly and Amylin splitting the revenue from the drug equally.

Results of the study - which tracked 114 diabetics over two 16-week periods - showed that Byetta patients were able to control blood-sugar levels just as well as those who took insulin, according to the companies. In addition, Byetta patients managed to lose an average of 5.7 pounds, compared to a weight gain of 1.3 pounds in diabetics taking insulin.

Byetta is used by patients with type 2 diabetes, the most common type of the disease, affecting at least 90 percent of the more than 20 million diabetics in the U.S., according to estimates from the American Diabetes Association.

Bad health and obesity is often to blame for the onset of type 2 diabetes, giving rise to the industry slang "diabesity." To make matters worse, insulin is often blamed for causing diabetics to gain even more weight.

"That's the added advantage of Byetta - it helps them lower their body weight and hypoglycemia risk," said Amylin chief executive Dan Bradbury, in an interview with "With Byetta, you're able to get very good glucose control, equivalent to insulin, without the challenges of insulin."

In the drug market, Byetta competes with the established blockbusters Avandia from GlaxoSmithKline (Charts) and Actos from Takeda, which have come under fire for allegedly increasing the risk of heart attacks, and the newly-launched drug Januvia from Merck (Charts, Fortune 500).

Other diabetes-related products include the new product Exubera, an inhalable insulin device from Pfizer (Charts, Fortune 500) that has been slow to take off. Novo Nordisk is the leading producer of insulin.

Lilly and Amylin announced their findings at the annual conference of the ADA. Bradbury, who became Amylin's CEO earlier this year, said he expects to release study findings about an extended-release version of Byetta in the fourth-quarter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to hypoglycemia as high blood sugar, hypoglycemia is low blood sugar. CNNMoney regrets the error. (Back to story)

LeCroy does not own Lilly or Amylin stock and Natexis Bleichroeder does not conduct business with them. Top of page