Given these figures, the potential for Alzheimer's drugs seems to be huge. Surprisingly, a very low amount of research is going into developing new drugs for the disease, which usually affects people over 70 years and is characterised by memory loss, impaired judgment, loss of language skills, and behavioural disturbances. Alzheimer's disease currently poses the biggest unmet medical need in neurology.
According to statistics, the market for Alzheimer's drugs, which was at $3 billion in 2006, is expected to exceed $5 billion by 2012. Even then, pharma players are not going deep into the disease to discover new chemical entities (NCEs) or new biological entities (NBEs), which when developed can become novel drugs.
P N Renjen, senior consultant (neurology) at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, says, "Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. There is no drug that can reverse such degeneration of the nervous system." The medicines available now can be used only for mild to moderate Alzheimer's.
Among these are Pfizer's Aricept, Novartis' Exelon, Johnson & Johnson's Razadyne, and Forest Laboratories' Namenda. Ranbaxy, Sun Pharma, Teva, Dr Reddy's Laboratories, among others, sell generic versions of Alzheimer's drugs.
Sanjay Saxena, senior consultant (neurology) at Fortis Hospital, Noida, says, "There is no treatment available for severe forms of the disease. Clinical trials are being conducted to find out whether stem cell therapy can be used for treating Alzheimer's, but in most cases patients with severe forms of the disease end up in old-age centres." Bhavin Shah, a research analyst at Dolat Capital Market, feels if any company manages to develop an effective novel medicine for Alzheimer's, the drug can become a blockbuster with gross sales of over $1 billion.
But Indian firms such as Piramal Life Sciences, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, Wockhardt, Dr Reddy's Labs, Lupin Pharmaceuticals, Sun Pharma Advanced Research Company and Biocon, which have several NCE and a few NBEs in their portfolios, have been focusing on areas like cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), etc. Globally, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Wyeth, Roche have Alzheimer's molecules.
But in India, the only one to have ventured into this highly complex segment is the Rs 120-crore Suven Life Sciences. The Hyderabad-based firm has a few molecules in Alzheimer's, one of which will enter phase II in June this year. Venkat Jasti, the vice chairman and CEO of Suven, says competition in the disease is low and so, its potential is greater.
However, companies shy away from research into it because it involves the central nervous system (CNS), a highly complex area. Bino Pathiparampil, an analyst at equity firm IIFL, agrees. "In areas such as diabetes or cancer, it is easy to conduct animal trials. However, in CNS, you cannot make out a lot from animal studies. It's tough, so companies don't like to venture into it," Pathiparampil says.