NIH funds study of Martek's DHA to treat Alzheimer's

October 18, 2006|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,sun reporter

Martek Biosciences can claim that its nutritional supplement helps develop infant minds and eyes, makes breast cancer treatments more tolerable and might prevent cardiovascular disease in adults.

What the Columbia company hasn't quite nailed down is a correlation between its DHA - a vegetarian version of an omega-3 fatty acid typically found in fish - and slowed progression of Alzheimer's disease, despite animal studies showing a possible relationship.

But yesterday, an arm of the National Institutes of Health announced that it will use Martek's DHA in a $10.5 million, 400- patient study into whether DHA can help slow Alzheimer's. It's the sort of close look that the biotechnology company has been hoping for.

"This study is a big step for us," said Martek spokeswoman Cassie France-Kelly. "The NIH is something that consumers turn to as a very credible source for health information. ... I also think that it's significant that they chose our DHA specifically over other versions of omega-3s out there."

Martek has nearly saturated the marketplace for fatty acid supplements in infant formula, and investors are growing restless while the company tries to identify new revenue paths.

Its stock, which closed at $23.78 yesterday, has hovered between $20 and $34 over the past year, compared with $30 to $70 a year earlier.

"The stock is currently being valued predominantly on the infant formula opportunity in the U.S. and abroad," analyst Scott Van Winkle of Canaccord Adams, a Vancouver, British Columbia, firm, wrote in a report this month. "Market opportunities in new areas such as food and nutritional supplements must develop for estimates to increase and shares to appreciate."

Martek has signed several deals with food manufacturers to add DHA to various products, soy milk in particular. But no huge pairings have been announced, and that, coupled with lowered earnings projections, has led the stock price to languish.

A boost to DHA's reputation from an NIH-funded study could reinvigorate the supplement market, said analyst David Webber of First Albany Capital.

"If a study like this were to show clear benefit, I would certainly imagine their sales of DHA in health food stores would go up dramatically," Webber said.

According to the NIH's National Institute on Aging - which is conducting the study with the University of California, San Diego - Alzheimer's disease affects about 4.5 million people in the United states, and about half of the population age 85 and older.

Studies in mice have shown that DHA reduces some Alzheimer's damage, and human trials have shown a correlation between DHA and cognitive function.

"DHA has great promise as a treatment strategy for Alzheimer's disease, with favorable effects on the same biochemical targets which are being pursued with experimental drugs," Oregon Health and Science University's Dr. Joseph Quinn, one of the study's lead investigators, said.

Still, Webber is cautious, particularly when considering the study's timeline of three years.

"This is a form of validation that [DHA] is a credible candidate for a therapy for Alzheimer's, and that's really all you can say about it at this point," Webber said.

"Obviously, it could be major if it were to work out, but it's far too early to predict."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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