* Also suspends ocrelizumab RA development programme
* Safety monitoring board detects serious infections
* Roche stock closes near flat; Biogen up 1.9 percent
(Adds comment from Roche, updates shares)
By Katie Reid
ZURICH, March 8 Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG
ROG.VX and U.S. biotechnology company Biogen Idec (BIIB.O) are
suspending experimental rheumatoid arthritis and lupus treatment
ocrelizumab after deaths following its use, casting doubt over
Roche and Biogen stopped using the experimental drug for the
two diseases after a safety monitoring board said it had seen
serious infections in studies involving the drug and that some
were fatal, marking the latest setback for Roche's pipeline.
"We now need to look at the data to gain an increased
understanding of the causes of the infections," a Roche
spokesman said, adding that the majority of opportunistic
infections were reported in Asia.
Opportunistic infections are infections that do not normally
occur in a healthy person.
Ocrelizumab, developed by Roche's Genentech unit and Biogen,
is similar to Rituxan, which is already approved to treat cancer
and rheumatoid arthritis.
Despite the setback, JPMorgan analyst Geoff Meacham said
there was a silver lining for Biogen because it allowed the
company to maintain a profit sharing percentage on Rituxan that
otherwise would have been reduced had the follow-on drug
"We see today's announcement as an incremental positive for
Biogen as it could modestly improve the top- and bottom-line
growth picture for the company," Meacham said in a research
Roche stock closed near flat, while Biogen shares were
nearly 2 percent higher at 1645 GMT.
Roche said last year a late-stage trial of ocrelizumab
showed it significantly reduced the signs and symptoms of
rheumatoid arthritis, a painful joint disease, but that it was
associated with a higher number of serious infections.
The drug was expected to succeed Rituxan when its patent
expired, said Helvea analyst Karl-Heinz Koch. Rituxan records
sales of around 900 million Swiss francs ($841.9 million) in
rheumatoid arthritis, Koch said.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease characterized
by inflammation that leads to stiff, swollen and painful joints
It affects some 20 million people, according to the National
Rheumatoid Arthritis Society.
Ocrelizumab is still being evaluated for relapsing remitting
multiple sclerosis and a Phase II study is on-going, Roche said.
But Helvea's Koch said the safety issues of the drug meant
it was unlikely it would continue its clinical path and that he
no longer expected peak sales of 800 million francs.
Roche, the world's largest maker of cancer drugs, suffered a
setback last month when its cancer drug Avastin failed in a
late-stage stomach cancer trial.[ID:nLDE61M05O]
(Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; editing
by Jon Loades-Carter and Karen Foster)
($1=1.069 Swiss Franc)