By Caroline Copley
ZURICH (Reuters) - Positive results for Roche's experimental eye drug should bolster its position in the multibillion-dollar-a-year market for vision loss treatments, as it looks to branch out beyond its core cancer expertise.
After scrapping drugs to treat diabetes and boost levels of "good" high-density cholesterol, the world's largest maker of cancer drugs is hoping to prove it has a stronger hand when it comes to developing treatments for the eyes.
The company has already chalked up one success with Lucentis, a treatment for wet age-related macula degeneration (AMD), which had sales of $1.5 billion in the United States last year. The macula is the part of the eye that allows fine detail to be seen.
But it has been losing market share to Regeneron and Bayer's Eylea, making success with lampalizumab - its treatment for the dry form of AMD known as geographic atrophy (GA) - all the more pressing if it wants to consolidate its place as a key player in the market.
"While we have been a very oncology-focused company, ophthalmology is an area where there's a huge amount of opportunity," Carole Ho, director of Early Clinical Development at Roche's biotech unit Genentech told Reuters in an interview prior to the data being published.
There are currently no approved treatments for geographic atrophy, a leading cause of blindness in adults over 55, which gradually causes vision loss in the macula, making it harder to read, drive and recognize people's faces.
More than 8 million people worldwide are affected by the disease and the numbers are expected to rise as the ranks of the elderly swell, making it a lucrative space for drugmakers.
Results of the phase II clinical trial presented at the American Society of Retina Specialists in Toronto on Tuesday found lampalizumab reduced this type of atrophy by 20.4 percent at 18 months in patients with this dry form of AMD.
The data, also showed no unexpected or unmanageable side effects with the drug, Roche said.
Although it is still early days, Deutsche Bank analyst Tim Race said the data was strong and estimated the market opportunity for the drug at over $5 billion globally, potentially making it a more meaningful for Roche than Lucentis.
Lampalizumab, which Genentech acquired when it bought Tanox in 2007, works by inhibiting the protein Factor D, which regulates the cell-destruction properties of the immune system.
Developing targeted therapies has already helped Genentech churn out multiple top-selling cancer drugs. It hopes those same tools will help it prove it is on the right track with treatments for vision loss as well.
In the phase II trial, Roche identified a specific sub-population of GA patients using exploratory biomarkers - a tool which helps it identify the efficacy of its drugs earlier. Among that group, the rate of GA slowed by 44 percent at 18 months.
"As we understand the science better, and if we see successes in our treatment of more advanced stages, we'd be looking to go and impact the disease earlier," Ho said.
As well as developing its own drugs in-house, Roche is also interested in other companies working in this field, she added.
One company that has been touted as a natural takeover target for Roche is U.S. biotech Opthotech, which is developing a drug that can be combined with Lucentis.
Other rivals in the eye drug field include Novartis which sells Lucentis outside the United States. The company paid $39.3 billion in 2010 to buy the rest of leading eye care firm Alcon.
Novartis is currently running mid-stage trials for its own treatment for AMD known as LFG316, which inhibits the inflammatory and cell-destruction properties of the protein C5.
(Editing by David Evans)