David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News
A machine purifying a drug at a Gilead Sciences laboratory in California.
Published: April 19, 2012
A combination of two pills proved extremely effective in treating hepatitis C in a small trial, raising hopes among researchers that the disease will be curable without an injected drug that has debilitating side effects.
But the combination might not find its way to the market because one pill is owned by Gilead Sciences and the other by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The companies have not agreed to collaborate, to the chagrin of some doctors.
“The only appropriate motivation should be what is the best and fastest way to get cures, not what is best for the shareholders,” said Dr. Scott Friedman, chief of liver diseases at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the trial.
Dr. Douglas J. Manion, a senior vice president for Bristol-Myers, said his company was “keen” on working with Gilead but that “thus far, they have been unwilling to engage in that collaboration.”
Norbert W. Bischofberger, executive vice president for research and development at Gilead, said his company wanted to wait several months for data on other treatment options before deciding what path to take.
“We told them it’s too early to jump wildly into this collaboration,” he said.
Both executives spoke separately by telephone from the International Liver Congress in Barcelona, Spain, where data on the drug combination was presented.
Gilead and Bristol are among the leaders of one of the most heated races in the pharmaceutical industry — to develop an all oral treatment for hepatitis C, a liver-damaging virus that infects three million to four million Americans.
New pills introduced last year by Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Merck have sharply improved the cure rate, to about 60 to 80 percent. But those drugs must still be used alpha interferon, which is injected weekly for up to a year and can cause flulike symptoms.
Many companies are trying to develop combinations of pills — similar to those used to treat H.I.V. — that would eradicate the virus without the need for interferon.
Results from several companies presented at the Barcelona conference have given doctors confidence that this will indeed be possible, with the first such combinations reaching the market perhaps by 2014.
Dr. Melissa Palmer, who was a practicing liver specialist until last fall, said that the trials were small and patients were usually not followed long enough to see if they were truly cured.
“It’s going to be important to wait a longer time to see if these results are sustainable,” said Dr. Palmer, who is now a consultant to investors.
Nonetheless, investors were busily predicting from the Barcelona data which companies will capture the billions of dollars a year in possible sales. Besides Gilead and Bristol, some mentioned Abbott Laboratories, which also presented strong preliminary data.
Gilead, a leader in drugs for AIDS, paid $11 billion a few months ago to acquire Pharmasset, based on very preliminary data on its hepatitis drug, now called GS-7977. Subsequent data was not as good and Gilead’s stock sank.
But the data announced on Thursday appeared to restore confidence in 7977. Shares of Gilead gained 12 percent to $52.25. Shares of Bristol rose 1 percent to $33.93.
All 29 of the patients with the strain of the virus that is most common in the United States had no detectable virus in their blood four weeks after finishing 24 weeks of treatment with GS-7977 and Bristol’s pill, daclatasvir. The figure was 28 out of 30 patients with two other virus strains. Each pill was taken once a day.
Doctors usually wait 12 to 24 weeks after finishing treatment to declare a cure, since there can be relapses.
Dr. Bischofberger said that before deciding whether to work with Bristol on a larger trial, Gilead wanted to wait a few months for data showing whether the same two drugs would work with only 12 weeks of treatment instead of 24.
He said he also wanted to see whether Gilead could improve results of using GS-7977 with ribavirin, a drug that is part of the existing treatment.
A combination of GS-7977 with ribavirin, which is generic, would be far less expensive than a combination with daclatasvir, he said, because new hepatitis drugs are expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars for a course of treatment.
A combination with ribavirin would also mean that Gilead would not have to split revenues with Bristol, making it easier to recoup the money it spent to buy Pharmasset.
Dr. Bischofberger said that once both 7977 and daclatasvir won approval, doctors could use them together, so patients would not be shortchanged if the companies did not collaborate.