* Roche says Lucentis improves vision in patients with DME
* Drug meets primary endpoint in phase III study
* Roche shares down 0.5 pct vs sector index up 0.4 pct.
(Adds details, background, stock price, analyst comment)
By Silke Koltrowitz and Katie Reid
ZURICH, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Roche's (ROG.VX) Lucentis helps improve the vision of diabetics suffering from a complication that can cause blindness, a late-stage trial has shown, the latest small boost for the Swiss drugmaker.
Lucentis met the primary endpoint of the Phase III study by improving the vision of patients with diabetic macular edema (DME), which affects up to 10 percent of people with diabetes and can lead to blurred vision, severe vision loss and even blindness.
The news comes after upbeat data for its key drug Avastin, lung cancer treatment Tarceva and melanoma drug RG7204 this year, and should help remind investors of the strength of Roche's pipeline after a dismal year in 2010. [ID:nLDE71704C]
Investors are now awaiting data from the CATT study comparing Lucentis with Avastin in wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Avastin, which is not licensed for use in the eyes, works in a very similar way to Lucentis and some doctors are already using it as a cheap alternative.
More could follow if a 1,200-patient U.S. National Eye Institute study, due in the first half of this year, shows the two therapies to be equally good.
"Label extension into DME is a significant commercial opportunity for Lucentis in the U.S. and will essentially double the accessible patient population in comparison to AMD," Kepler Capital Markets analyst Martin Voegtli said.
"The additional indication is a key element for supporting future growth as we would expect temporary sales erosion from increasing off-label use of Avastin," Voegtli said, adding he forecasts Lucentis peak sales of 2 billion Swiss francs.
At 0835 GMT, Roche stock was trading 0.5 percent lower, while the European healthcare market .SXDP was up 0.4 percent.
Lucentis, which was recently approved for treatment of visual impairment due to DME in Europe, where it is marketed by Novartis (NOVN.VX), was approved in neovascular age-related macular degeneration in 2006.
It was also approved for treatment of macular edema following retinal vein occlusion in June last year.
Results from the study will be presented at the annual macula society meeting on March 10. Roche is still awaiting data from a second late-stage trial. (Editing by Greg Mahlich and Erica Billingham)