Pfizer’s latest cholesterol treatment an expensive flop
Drug development remains a high risk game for pharma companies and for Ireland
Pfizer: has spiked plans to expand the Grange Castle site. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Pfizer was once synonymous with the treatment of cholesterol. Its Lipitor drug was, for years, the best selling medicine in the world. However, Lipitor has now lost patent protection and Pfizer’s efforts to develop next generation cholesterol lowering drugs has failed to deliver.
The decision early this month to abandon development of bococizumab despite the millions spent taking it to the final stages of the pipeline highlights both the costs involved in drug development and the inherent risks for the companies involved. It is Pfizer’s second flop in this area.
For Ireland, that failure has crystallised in a decision not to proceed with a major expansion of the company’s Grange Castle site. The 350 jobs it would have delivered will not now be created – at least not unless Pfizer comes up with a drug with similar potential, which seems unlikely given the relative paucity of its pipeline.
It is a setback for the economy but, from Pfizer’s point of view, it is in some ways a bullet dodged. The company had planned to invest up to €400 million in the Grange Castle project and, in earlier times, a concrete decision to begin construction would have been made earlier in the process.
However, no formal approval of the Grange Castle plan had ever been given from its New York headquarters, despite the fact that the drug was in Phase III trials – on the cusp of expected approval. Had it been successful, getting the site built and validated by the US regulator, the FDA and the European Medicines Agency in time for the planned start of production, would have been exceptionally tight.
For the industry more generally, it is another expensive failure in a key treatment area, and was followed this week by the expensive collapse of Eli Lilly’s latest efforts to develop a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s remains one of the great untreated areas in medicine and it is one with which Irish pharma is well familiar. The failure of its drug, bapineuzumab twice over was enough to initially hobble and eventually break Elan, then Ireland’s largest indigenous pharma group.
Drug development remains a high risk game, which is why there is such an animated discussion about the pricing of medicines that make it through to market. Ireland has done very well to date from the success of the industry in delivering new therapies for a range of conditions. But it doesn’t get any easier.