Can Roche and Merck Succeed Where Pfizer Failed?

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The death of Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE  ) torcetrapib was perhaps the most surprising and disappointing drug failure of the last decade. Development of the potential multibillion-dollar drug that could have helped with the loss of Lipitor was stopped in 2006 when it appeared patients taking the drug were actually fairing worse.

But that hasn't stopped Roche (OTC: RHHBY.PK) and Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) from developing cholesterol drugs in the same class. The lure of billions of dollars in revenue trumps the risk of throwing R&D dollars at a drug in a risky class, I guess.

So far, the strategy seems to be sound. Roche will present data for its CETP inhibitor, dalcetrapib, this weekend at the European Society of Cardiology meeting, but the phase 2 data we've seen so far looks pretty good. The drug raises HDL cholesterol -- that's the good kind -- without any major issues.

But we'll need to see the phase 3 data that's expected next year before we can say that torcetrapib's issues were specific to that molecule and not to the entire CETP inhibitor class. Outcome data -- declines in heart attacks, strokes, and the like -- for Merck's anacetrapib is expected in 2017.

Raising good cholesterol is a sweet spot because the drugs can be used in combination with statins like Lipitor and AstraZeneca's (NYSE: AZN  ) Crestor that lower bad cholesterol. Not having to compete with the current treatments, especially as Lipitor goes generic, should make marketing easier.

That assumes, of course, that the drugs work. Investors looking for a less-risky play on heart drugs that can be used in combination with statins should look at Amarin (Nasdaq: AMRN  ) , which has already passed two phase 3 trials.

Keep up with the heart-drug race by adding the companies to the Fool's My Watchlist to get all the Foolish coverage of the companies.

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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