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By Barry S. Cohen, Stock Traders Daily

Merck (MRK) is counting on an imaging agent from General Electric (GE) to help determine if its investigational drug MK-8931 is effective in treating late-stage Alzheimer's disease.

The GE agent will work in tandem with Merck's lead Alzheimer's drug to determine if the medicine is successfully obstructing an enzyme that can cut back the development of beta amyloid. Although the exact cause of Alzheimer's disease remains a mystery, many experts believe that it results from the accumulation of beta amyloid proteins in the brain.

The GE imaging agent called flutemetamol is injected into patients before positron emission tomography, or PET, scans to detect beta amyloid deposits in the brain. Although the agent is still in development, it showed promising results in a late-stage study.

Merck's plan is to use flutemetamol to identify study candidates to treat with MK-8931 and then track their progress to learn if the drug is having the desired effect.

Of course, the opportunity can be huge for a pharmaceutical company that can come up with an effective Alzheimer's treatment. Consider this: AD is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for approximately 50%-75% of the estimated 35 million dementia cases globally. About 5.4 million people in the United States are currently living with AD and there are currently no disease-modifying treatments available. Current treatments are limited to providing symptomatic improvements with only modest and short-term effects.

Some in the industry wonder whether Merck is barking up the wrong tree. They think the company would be better off going after members of the Alzheimer's population in the early- rather than late- stage of the disease, pointing out that both Eli Lilly (LLY) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) threw in the towel on their drugs after they failed to produce results in late-phase AD patients.

In Merck's defense, its drug works differently than the Lilly and Bristol medications, Evidence suggests that it decreases the production of beta amyloid and may therefore reduce amyloid plaque formation and modify disease progression. And in this case, Merck has its ace in the hole, flutemetamol.

As to flutemetamol, GE plans to file for FDA and EU approvals later this year. But the company faces competition in the search for next-generation imaging for Alzheimer's. Dublin, Ohio-based Navidea (NAVB) is studying an agent that also targets beta amyloid. Lilly, meanwhile, is trying to get Amyvid, its diagnostics agent, indicated for Alzheimer's imaging,

Business relationship disclosure: This article was written by Barry Cohen, writer for Stock Traders Daily, and neither he or Stock Traders Daily receive compensation from the companies mentioned in this article for writing this article.

Source: A Different Solution? Merck Teams Up With GE To Tackle Alzheimer's