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Over the weekend, the results in a small cardiovascular trial came out that compared Merck's (NYSE:MRK) Zetia (ezetimibe/simvastatin) against Abbott's (NYSE:ABT) Niaspan (time-release niacin). Niacin's an under-appreciated therapy in the field - it has tolerability problems, mainly irritating and uncomfortable hot flushing, but it really does seem to help normalize lipid numbers. (And that's why Merck itself, among others, have taken cracks at the market).

This latest trial was a small one, but people have been starved for data on Zetia ever since it took a surprising hit (in the ENHANCE trial) suggesting that it might not be very efficacious. There's an ongoing larger trial that should answer this question once and for all, but those numbers won't be showing up for another two years. For now, anything that can help clarify what's going on is of great interest to Merck, its investors, and to cardiologists and their patients.

And Matthew Herper at Forbes is right: these latest numbers are disastrous. The study (funded by Abbott) isn't the greatest piece of clinical research in the world - it didn't study nearly as many patients as it was designed to, since it was halted early. (Here it is in the NEJM). But it still shows Niaspan as clearly superior to Zetia, and it makes a person wonder if taking Zetia is basically an expensive way to take a possibly inadequate dose of simvastatin. In a way, the relatively small size of the study actually helps it a bit - getting numbers that definitive without having to go to much larger sample sizes isn't so easy in cardiovascular trials, so the feeling is that there much be something here.

As Herper's article details, Merck is trying to spin this as a big win for their competition, not a big loss for their own drug. But that comes close to being logically impossible: cholesterol lowering, like many other therapeutic areas, is nearly a zero-sum game. If patients take Niaspan (or any other competing drug), they're not going to be taking Zetia. This one was certainly a victory for Abbott (and generic niacin, for those who can take it), but it was a loss for Merck as well.

The FDA's not coming out of all this looking very good, either:

"How is it possible for a drug to have $4 billion in sales without any evidence of benefit?" says Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale University. He said that the small size of the two imaging studies mean they couldn't render a clear verdict on Zetia. "But they don't instill any confidence in it either. " Douglas Weaver, head of cardiology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit says: "We've used Zetia without sufficient amounts of clinical data to support it. Using it may be right, it may be wrong, but we don't know right now."

But it's worth remembering that Zetia's mode of action made perfect sense, and that it really does lower cholesterol to what you'd think would be a very beneficial degree. But it probably has several other effects beyond simple LDL lowering, and just looking at that number is clearly (in hindsight) not enough of a clinical surrogate marker. As the study authors put it:

If viewed properly, this hypothesis-generating finding is not an indictment of the overall importance of reducing LDL cholesterol for the purpose of preventing cardiovascular events, as illustrated by therapies based on statins or nonstatins (e.g., bile acid sequestrants). Rather, this adverse relationship may be attributable to the net effect of ezetimibe, a drug with diverse actions, not all of which are measured through its effects on intestinal cholesterol absorption and LDL cholesterol level. Taken together with a preexisting concern regarding the clinical effectiveness of ezetimibe, our findings challenge the usefulness of LDL cholesterol reduction as a guaranteed surrogate of clinical efficacy, particularly reduction achieved through the use of novel clinical compounds.

But as I recall, statins themselves were first approved based largely on lowered LDL, with better outcome data only showing up later. In that case, the surrogate marker paid off, but not this time. What all this is telling us, then, is that we don't know nearly as much about cholesterol and cardiology as we thought we did. And if we don't understand that area well enough, after all these years and all this effort, what parts of medicine do we really understand?

Source: Cholesterol Drug Trials: A Victory for Abbott Means a Loss for Merck