February 3, 2009 / 7:57 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 2-Merck KGaA says drug helps Parkinson's patients

* Safinamide shown to improve patients’ motor functions

* Results from Phase III study

* Drug developed jointly with Newron

* Merck shares edge up, Newron reverses initial gains

(Adds further details, share prices)

FRANKFURT, Feb 3 (Reuters) - A late-stage study has shown Merck KGaA’s (MRCG.DE) experimental Parkinson’s treatment safinamide, when taken with standard drug levodopa, improves patients’ motor functions, the German group said on Tuesday.

The pill, developed jointly with Italian biotech company Newron (NWRN.S), extended the time when Parkinson’s patients experienced their best level of body control in the last of three stages of testing usually required for regulatory approval, the company said in a statement.

Patients receiving levodopa with safinamide experienced more than half an hour longer periods of good motor control per day than those receiving levodopa with a placebo.

In addition, the safinamide-treated group saw an improvement of 1.3 hours per day from before the start of the drug regimen.

The compound is being tested in two more Phase III trials, the company said.

“Efficacy-wise this is at best comparable to currently available drugs,” WestLB analysts wrote in a note to investors, saying caution is warranted until further results emerge.

Merck shares firmed 0.5 percent to 66.85 euros by 1230 GMT, while the European DJ Stoxx Health Care Index .SXDP edged up 0.6 percent.

Shares in Zurich-listed Newron were down 5.6 percent at 21 Swiss francs, after initially gaining 16.6 percent at the open.

Commerzbank analyst Daniel Wendorff said he kept his projection of peak sales of 500 million euros for the drug unchanged, awaiting results from the remaining Phase III trials before reconsidering his assessment.

His appraisal of Merck’s value is based on a 50 percent chance of approval for the pill.

Kepler analyst Florian Gaiser was more upbeat.

“The addressable market has doubled with the result and we are more confident with our sales forecast of over 400 million euros some time beyond 2017.”

The milestone payments related to the findings should eliminate most of Newron’s funding risks, Gaiser added.

About 3 million people in developed countries are estimated to suffer from Parkinson’s. (Reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Greg Mahlich and Simon Jessop)

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