Roche (RHHBY) and its Genentech unit don't want to know whether Avastin is as effective as Lucentis, the expensive eye drug it markets for preventing blindness from age-related macular degeneration. Although the two drugs were developed for different purposes they have a similar chemical structure. If it were to emerge -- as many doctors suspect -- that Avastin is just as good as Lucentis, Roche could lose a bucketload of money as doctors divert Avastin supplies to treat AMD. Avastin costs about $50 for one treatment versus about $1,500 per injection for Lucentis.
That's why Roche was so happy to fund this most recent study, which focuses not on a comparison of the drugs' effectiveness but on their flaws. According to the WSJ, the study "could create some safety concerns over Avastin's off-label use and potentially cushion a feared drop in Lucentis sales in the U.S." Joe Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis (NVS), Roche's European marketing partner on Lucentis, clearly agreed:
I predict less off-label use of Avastin as this body of evidence comes to light.The WSJ didn't make much of the study's funding:
Some of the researchers have commercial relations with Roche biotech unit Genentech and Novartis eye-care unit Alcon,"Some"? Try "all." All of the authors had personal commercial relationships with Roche, Genentech, Novartis, and Alcon, and Genentech provided financial support for the study itself. This isn't a disinterested academic investigation; it's industrial R&D for Roche et al. (click to enlarge):
- Genentech banned certain pharmacies from carrying Avastin because it suspected they were selling it to eye doctors.
- Novartis previously funded a major UK charity for the blind, which then adopted the counterintuitive position of favoring the more expensive drug.
- And in its other research, Roche pitted Lucentis against a placebo -- a feeble type of clinical research all but designed to show that a drug works. Unsurprisingly, the real thing works better than fake eye injections.