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Why Roche Is Excited by a Blindness Drug's Flaws But Not Its Effectiveness

A study that shows a greater death rate among patients whose eye disease was treated with Roche's cancer drug Avastin is also a gauge of the company's cynicism.

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):

Roche and Novartis are aggressively disinterested in finding out whether Avastin works for AMD:

All of this may be moot. Later this year, the National Eye Institute is scheduled to unveil partial results of a big head-to-head study of the two drugs intended to tackle the issue once and for all.


Image: What it's like seeing with AMD, courtesy of NIE.