Arena Positions Weight Loss Drug as the One That Won’t Raise Your Blood Pressure

10/27/09Follow @xconomy

Life would be wonderful at Arena Pharmaceuticals if it truly were the biggest loser, to borrow a phrase from the NBC reality TV show on people who are trying to lose weight. But no matter how hard you look at it, the clinical trial data just doesn’t say Arena’s weight loss pill that helps people shed more pounds than rival treatments from San Diego-based Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX) or Mountain View, CA-based Vivus (NASDAQ: VVUS).

So if you’re Arena, and you’ve invested 12 years and about $1 billion in developing a potential multi-billion dollar weight-loss pill, what do you do? The strategy is becoming clearer by the day. Arena (NASDAQ: ARNA) is talking a lot about its squeaky-clean safety profile suitable for a broad market, enough weight loss to get the attention of most primary care doctors, and a unique claim that its medicine is the only one that won’t raise patients’ blood pressure.

“We saw patients’ blood pressure actually decrease, which is unique in obesity studies,” says Jack Lief, Arena’s CEO. I spoke to Lief by phone yesterday during a break at The Obesity Society meeting in Washington, DC. “Doctors have told us that lowering the cardiovascular risk factors associated with obesity is very important.”

Advances like Arena’s in the battle against excess fat have been one of the big stories in biotech this year. Obesity is one of the nation’s biggest public health problems, with two-thirds of the U.S. population considered overweight. As I wrote last month, drug companies know the winner in this market might dominate the biggest pharmaceutical market ever. Public health officials say obesity often leads to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all kinds of other ailments that cost the country billions of dollars, so there is sure to be some debate about how much bang society might get for the many bucks it will be asked to shell out for these drugs.

Jack Lief

Jack Lief

Whether any of the three companies can even reach the market is still an open question, because this market has also been a graveyard since Wyeth’s fen-phen drug combination was pulled from the market after patients suffered damaged heart valves in the 1990s. The most-prescribed treatment for obesity today is the 50-year-old generic stimulant phentermine, which raises blood pressure and can cause insomnia, Lief says. While Arena’s competitors appeared to show a greater magnitude of weight loss when they were compared with placebos, Arena says its drug can still compete, partly because the market is so big and underserved beyond the traditional diet and exercise regimens.

“We hear it from doctors over and over again, they need more tools in their toolbox,” says Dominic Behan, Arena’s chief scientific officer. Based on Arena’s market research surveys of physicians, they have found doctors want “something to help patients lose weight fast, it’s got to be safe, and you have to be able to stay on it long enough to achieve progress on the cardiovascular [goals].”

Arena announced fairly detailed results … Next Page »

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  • Bud Taylor

    People taking a diet pill could care less about placebo effect. If Lorcaserin safely helps you lose 17 pounds over a year and part of that is because they believe the drug will work, that’s what they will focus on. Since they will need a physician’s help in getting prescription, the doctor will focus on the safety issues first and the attendant blood pressure stabilization, that means that Lorcaserin in many cases will be the tool of choice. So what if Vivus and Orexigen Theraputics also have a drug marketing success…Arena will have tremendous sales as well. They also have a manufacturing facility in place ready to go when the NDA is received.