Everyone must have heard the news about Wednesday's FDA Advisory Commitee vote on sanofi-aventis' (NYSE:SNY) Accomplia / Zimulti (rimonabant). If you'd tried to convince folks a few years ago that this drug wouldn't make it to a vote until summer of 2007, and would be unanimously rejected when it did, you'd have been looked at with pity and concern. No, this drug was going to conquer the world, and now people are talking merger-of-desperation.
Hey, you don't even have to go back a few years. Here's an article from 2006:
A new anti-obesity pill that market observers say could become the world's biggest-selling drug is close to getting approval from the European Commission. . .
Gbola Amusa, an analyst with research firm Sanford C Bernstein, said that Acomplia could achieve $4.1bn in annual sales by 2010, in part because it has been shown in clinical trials not only to trim fat but to increase levels of good cholesterol and control diabetes.
"In the blue sky scenario, this could become the world's best- selling drug as the indication is so broad," he said. "It has a path to revenues that we rarely ever see from a pharma product."
Oh, the blue sky scenario. I'm no stranger to it myself - I love the blue sky scenario. But how often does it ever descend to earth? It's not going to do it this time. Sanofi-aventis was reduced to making the suggestion that every potential patient be first screened for depression, which doesn't sound like the sort of iron wrecking ball that usually gets welded to the world's best-selling drugs.
In the wake of this development disaster, here are a few points that may not get the attention they deserve: first, consider the money that S-A has spent on this drug. We're never going to be shown an accurate accounting; no one outside the upper reaches of the company will ever see that. But I seriously doubt if they've ever spent more on any program. There's an excellent chance that most of it will never be recovered, not by rimonabant - it'll have to be recovered by whatever drugs the company can come up with in the future. They'll be priced accordingly.
Second, think about the position of their competitors. All sorts of companies have pursued this wonder blockbuster opportunity. If you run CB-1 antagonists through the databases, all kinds of stuff comes hosing out. Merck (NYSE:MRK) and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) are the companies that were most advanced - you don't get much more advanced than Phase III clinical trials - but plenty of others spent time and money on the chase. All of those prospects have taken grievous damage. Odds are that rimonbant's problems are mechanism-related, and proving otherwise will be an expensive job. This is something to consider when you next hear about all those easy, cheap me-too drugs.
And finally, it's worth thinking about what this says about our abilities to prosecute drug development in general. Just as in the case of Pfizer's torcetrapib, we have here a huge, expensive, widely anticipated drug that comes down out of the sky because of something we didn't know about. It's going to happen again, too. Never think it won't. This is a risky, white-knuckle business, and it's going to be that way for a long time to come.