More MS news articles for October 1999

Biogen Rivals Funded Publicizing of Negative Study on Avonex Drug

October 15, 1999

By LAURA JOHANNES
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

An academic researcher who issued a finding with negative bearing on Biogen Inc. acknowledged he received funding from a Biogen competitor, Teva Pharmaceuticals Ltd., and its partner to publicize his report.

The report said the company's multiple-sclerosis drug, Avonex, lagged behind competitors in the first head-to-head trial of three multiple-sclerosis drugs.

Avonex is the market leader in the more than $1 billion world-wide market for multiple-sclerosis drugs. In Nasdaq Stock Market trading, Biogen stock fell as low as $76 on Wednesday but ended the day slightly up. Thursday, the shares fell $1.9688, or 2.4%, to $78.9688.

The study, presented at the American Neurological Association conference in Seattle Wednesday, found that in a one-year trial with 156 patients, Copaxone, sold by a joint venture of Teva and Hoechst Marion Roussel, and Betaseron, sold by a U.S. unit of Germany's Schering AG, both were effective in reducing flare-ups of the disease. But Avonex, according to a press release, "failed to show a statistically significant therapeutic effect" compared with placebos.

Initial reports on Wednesday indicated that the research was funded by Wayne State University, in Detroit. However, Thursday, the Wayne State researcher, Omar Khan, said that, while the study itself was independent, he received an "unrestricted educational grant" to publicize the findings from the Teva Marion Partnership, a joint venture of Teva, of Israel, and the Hoechst AG unit.

Teva Marion, he said, put him in touch with its public-relations firm, FleishmanHillard Inc., which prepared a publicity campaign, including a press release and video. Larry Downey, chief executive of Teva Marion Partners, confirmed the company gave Dr. Kahn a grant but said he was free to use it as he liked and said the company didn't control the press materials' wording. Mr. Downey added that promoting Copaxone wasn't the company's only motivation for funding publicity on the study. "It adds to the body of knowledge about multiple sclerosis," he said. He said funding publicity for independent research studies is a "fairly common practice" in the pharmaceutical industry.

Officials at Hoechst Marion Roussel couldn't be reached for comment.

Jeffrey Latts, a spokesman for Schering's Berlex Laboratories unit, said he was "surprised" to hear of Teva Marion's funding, which is unusual given that it didn't fund the research. He called the study "another piece of information ... not nonsense but not conclusive, either."

The decision by Teva to fund a campaign left some on Wall Street skeptical. "People who think the world of academic research is completely objective should think twice," Richard van den Broek, an analyst at Hambrecht & Quist in New York, said.

Biogen spokeswoman Kathryn Bloom called the study "very badly constructed." The study wasn't blinded, meaning that patients and doctors knew which drug they were on, and it wasn't randomized, meaning that patients got to choose which drug they preferred.

Dr. Khan agreed his study wasn't rigorously designed, but said "it does tell us what happens in day-to-day use when patients choose their own medications."

Both Dr. Khan and Biogen did agree that the study didn't adequately address an important measure of a multiple-sclerosis drug's effectiveness -- how it reduces disability, such as trouble in walking, over years of use. Biogen scored well on this measurement in its clinical trials and is allowed to claim that Avonex helps stall disability.