Remember torcetrapib? Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) always will. The late Phase III failure of that CETP inhibitor wiped out their chances for an even bigger HDL-raising follow-up to LDL-lowering Lipitor, the world's biggest drug, and changed the future of the company in ways that are still being played out.
But CETP inhibition still makes sense, biochemically. And the market for increasing HDL levels is just as huge as it ever was, since there's still no good way to do it. Merck (NYSE:MRK) is pressing ahead with anacetrapib, Roche (OTCQX:RHHBY) with dalcetrapib, and Lilly (NYSE:LLY) is out with recent data on evacetrapib. All three companies have tried to learn as much as they could from Pfizer's disaster, and are keeping a close eye on the best guesses for why it happened (a small rise in blood pressure and changes in aldosterone levels). So far, so good - but that only takes you so far. Those toxicological changes are reasonable, but they're only hypotheses for why torcetrapib showed a higher death rate in the drug treatment group than it did in the controls. And even that only takes you up to the big questions.
Which are: will raising HDL really make a difference in cardiovascular morbidity and mortality? And if so, is inhibiting CETP the right way to do it? Human lipidology is not nearly as well worked out as some people might think it is, and these are both still very open questions. But such drugs, and such trials, are the only way that we're going to find out the answers. All three companies are risking hundreds of millions of dollars (in an area that's already had one catastrophe) in an effort to find out, and (to be sure) in the hope of making billions of dollars if they're correct.
Will anyone make it through? Will they fail for tox like Pfizer did, telling us that we don't understand CETP inhibitors? Or will they make it past that problem, but not help patients as much as expected, telling us that we don't understand CETP itself, or HDL? Or will all three work as hoped, and arrive in time to split up the market ferociously, making none of them as profitable as the companies might have wanted? If you want to see what big-time drug development is like, I can't think of a better field to illustrate it.