Merck aims at hepatitis, c. difficile drugs

NEW YORK Wed Sep 14, 2011 5:36pm EDT

A view of the Merck & Co. campus in Linden, New Jersey March 9, 2009, after Merck & Co Inc said it would acquire Schering-Plough Corp in $41.1 billion deal, widening Merck's pipeline and diversifying its portfolio of medicines. ÊREUTERS/Jeff Zelevansky

A view of the Merck & Co. campus in Linden, New Jersey March 9, 2009, after Merck & Co Inc said it would acquire Schering-Plough Corp in $41.1 billion deal, widening Merck's pipeline and diversifying its portfolio of medicines. Ê

Credit: Reuters/Jeff Zelevansky

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The head of infectious diseases at Merck & Co said the company's future all-oral treatments for hepatitis C and its experimental drug for infections with clostridium difficile bacteria could transform treatment and reap big sales.

Merck and biotechnology company Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc earlier this year introduced rival new oral treatments for hepatitis C that work by blocking the protein protease. But they both must be taken with an injectable interferon that prolongs treatment and causes flu-like side effects.

Roger Pomerantz, who was named head of Merck's infectious disease segment last year, estimated the highly effective new hepatitis C drugs target only about 10 million to 15 million people in developed countries and some emerging markets.

By contrast, he said a newer all-oral treatment regimen that eliminates interferon could target as many as 180 million patients globally, including those in remote and rural regions of Africa and South America.

"We're at just the tip of the iceberg" with current treatments, he said in an interview on Wednesday. "The big change will be when we can provide a simple, compact all-oral regimen."

"Hepatitis C is arguably the largest market opportunity in infectious diseases in my lifetime because of the sheer numbers and the fact that we can cure it," said Pomerantz, who headed Johnson & Johnson's infectious disease division before being hired away by Merck.

Pomerantz said the company also has high hopes for a new way of fighting clostridium difficile (c. difficile), bacteria which are spread in hospitals and are most dangerous for the elderly and others with weakened immune systems.

The sometimes-deadly infections occur in patients who have been treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics that kill off "friendly" bacteria in the gut, allowing clostridium difficile to take root and prosper there. They cause colitis, including attacks of diarrhea and fever that can recur and are not well-controlled by current treatments.

"Over the past five years there has been a new hyper-virulent strain that is more deadly than the usual c. difficile, so we have a perfect storm" situation, Pomerantz said.

Merck's treatment reduced the rate of recurring attacks by more than 70 percent in mid-stage trials, Pomerantz said.

The company hopes to launch the new drug in 2013 or 2014, Pomerantz said. It is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that block toxins produced by c. difficile.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson, editing by Bernard Orr and Matthew Lewis)

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