Arena Pharmaceuticals’ Sleeper Drug Aims To Help You Stay Asleep

11/26/08Follow @xconomy

Arena Pharmaceuticals is known on Wall Street for one thing—obesity. The San Diego biotech company has a modified form of the fen-phen combination drug that’s supposed to help people lose weight without causing the heart damage that killed that Wyeth product a decade ago.

But Arena (NASDAQ: ARNA) has a sleeper in pipeline— a novel drug for insomnia. The company is planning to unveil results within a couple weeks from a clinical trial of 700 patients that will give it a good idea of the drug’s prospects. I got the rundown on it from CEO Jack Lief on a visit to Arena’s headquarters last week.

Sleep, of course, is one of those essential biological functions that’s a casualty of this frenetic digital age. Something like 70 million Americans have some form of insomnia, and it’s a chronic problem for one in 10 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. The nation spends an estimated $14 billion a year on direct costs of this disorder, including drugs, healthcare services, and hospital and nursing home care, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Existing drugs generated sales of more than $3.5 billion in 2006, Arena says. The best known drugs for this disorder are sedatives like Sanofi-Aventis’ zolpidem (Ambien), which tend to leave people groggy in the morning, and occasionally cause creepy side effects like sleepwalking or sleepeating. Anything better could be a very big seller.

Arena’s drug, APD-125, is designed to block a specific receptor on cells in the brain, called 5-HT2a, that’s blocked by some antipsychotic drugs, but not specifically by other insomnia meds. The Arena drug is not made to be a generalized sedative, so it ought to help prevent people from waking up multiple times in the night, without the groggy “hangover” effect in the morning, Lief says. The treatment should help people sleep more deeply, and get more high-quality rest.

“A lot of people have tried Ambien and don’t take it anymore because of the next-day hangover effect,” Lief says. “People want to feel more rested in the morning.”

Arena isn’t the only company that has been working on this idea. Sanofi-Aventis has two other drugs in development that block the same receptor, called eplivanserin and volinanserin, Lief says. Those drugs are less selective for the receptor that Arena blocks, and were originally designed for other uses, but they are closer to reaching the marketplace than Arena, he says. … Next Page »

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