New drugs promise relief

July 26, 1998|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Forget Viagra, the impotence treatment that re-energized the bedroom and the bottom line by its phenomenal sales. Some industry analysts believe a new arthritis painkiller known as COX-2 inhibitors will be the next pharmaceutical wonder.

"Viagra has been the most significant drug of 1998, but the COX-2 inhibitors will be the most significant drug of 1999," says Dr. Leonard Yaffe, a pharmaceutical analyst for NationsBanc Montgomery Securities. "We believe these drugs could eventually outsell Viagra."

Other analysts don't agree. "They'll have a significant benefit but they're over-hyped," says Hemant Shah, a pharmaceutical analyst with HKS & Co. "Most of the current products for arthritis, properly taken, are effective."

And doctors, familiar with a litany of promising drugs that ultimately disappointed, warn against unrealistic expectations. For instance, the new medications don't claim to halt the disease's progress. Rather, they're intended to relieve symptoms.

Currently, the drugs of choice for 30 million arthritis sufferers worldwide are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Though effective, these medications can cause gastrointestinal problems, including bleeding ulcers. This is because they work by inhibiting the inflammatory enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), but in so doing, they also inhibit COX-1, which protects the stomach.

The new group of drugs inhibit only COX-2.

Analysts expect that the first drug to reach pharmacy shelves early next year will be Celebra, from Monsanto's pharmaceutical unit, G.D. Searle. Merck & Co.'s rival, Vioxx, is expected to follow close behind.

Analyst Yaffe estimates that global Viagra sales will reach $6 billion around 2003. He thinks COX-2 inhibitors eventually will top $6 billion by the late part of that decade.

Whether the COX-2 drugs will be as effective as other medications is still the big question, says Dr. Alan Matsumoto, a rheumatologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"You don't know until you get them into the hands of doctors and their patients," he says.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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