Head-to-head eye drug results tipped for early May

* Lucentis vs Avastin study may feature at May 1-5 congress

* Lucentis at risk if far cheaper Avastin proves as good

* Lucentis brings in $1.5 bln/yr for both Roche and Novartis

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) – Results of the so-called CATT
study comparing Roche (ROG.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) and Novartis’s (NOVN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research) eye drug
Lucentis with low doses of cancer treatment Avastin may be
presented at a medical meeting in early May.

Billions of dollars of Lucentis sales hinge on the
head-to-head comparison. If Avastin — another Roche drug —
proves as good as Lucentis it will offer an alternative for
age-related eye disease at a fraction of the cost.

Industry sources said they expected the study to feature as
a “late-breaking” presentation during the May 1-5 annual meeting
of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology
(ARVO) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

ARVO itself is not giving anything away. “At present I am
unable to confirm that there will be a presentation of the CATT
study at the ARVO annual meeting,” said Jo Olson, the
organisation’s director of communications.

The U.S. National Eye Institute — the government-backed
research centre that is sponsoring the CATT study — also
declined to say exactly when the results would be unveiled,
although it reiterated it would be “in spring”.

The outcome of the U.S. trial is important not only for the
two Swiss drugmakers but also Germany’s Bayer (BAYGn.DE: Quote, Profile, Research), which
is developing a rival eye drug called VEGF Trap-Eye with
Regeneron (REGN.O: Quote, Profile, Research).

Although no-one knows for sure, most analysts expect Avastin
to prove as effective as Lucentis in the 1,200-patient test,
partly because the trial allows a generous margin for measuring
non-inferiority.

Roche sells Lucentis in the United States, while Novartis
sells it elsewhere. Last year, the two firms each generated
around $1.5 billion in Lucentis sales and some analyst models
suggest it could go on to become a $10 billion-plus drug.

That promise may not be met, however, with Avastin as a
rival.
<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ For graphic on Lucentis sales see: http://r.reuters.com/fyz28r ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

BLOOD VESSELS

Avastin is not licensed for use in the eye but it works in a
similar way to Lucentis, and the tiny amount needed for an eye
injection costs only around $50, against a U.S. price of $1,950
for Lucentis.

Many doctors, particularly in the United States, already use
Avastin “off label” to treat wet age-related macular
degeneration (AMD) because, just like Lucentis, it stops the
growth of blood vessels that can leak in the retina.

It could potentially cause more side effects, but this may
not emerge as an issue in the CATT study, given its limited
scope.

Possible safety issues associated with using Avastin in the
eye are also expected to be discussed at the ARVO meeting, with
the presentation of data from other research groups looking at
real-life use of the medicine in treating AMD patients.

Some analysts believe there may be an increased risk of
stroke and death with Avastin because it does not bind so
tightly to the site of action in the eye and is could therefore
have greater systemic side effects.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Washington)

Head-to-head eye drug results tipped for early May