This is a complete clinical disaster: the world’s largest drug company just ditched their potential biggest drug. And this comes two days after a press conference where they talked about how they were planning to submit it for approval within months. Development of torcetrapib, the cholesteryl-ester transfer protein inhibitor designed to raise HDL levels, has been halted. Last week, that sentence would have been the subject of nightmares at Pfizer, but now it’s the top of the news. No alarm clock buzz will make it go away. If you’re looking for an example of just how difficult drug development is, look no more.

The story broke on Saturday: the 15,000-patient trial that was underway (half on Lipitor, half on Lipitor plus torcetrapib) showed excess deaths in the combination group (82 versus 51). That figure’s impossible to ignore or explain away, and now the problem will be to explain what caused it. There are other CETP inhibitors in development, such as JTT-705 (from Japan Tobacco and Roche) and one from Merck as well. Both these companies have just had a tremendous shock, since we don’t know (yet) if the patient deaths were due to CETP inhibition itself, the combination of it with the HMG CoA reductase inhibition of the statin, an off-target effect of torcetrapib with the statin, or just an off-target effect of the drug on its own. I’m sure that intense reviews of all the clinical data are going on. Things just got much more complicated.

As for Pfizer, they now have a monstrous hole in their near-term pipeline. Looking back, they’ve had a terrible run the last couple of years, with a number of promising drugs dropping on them, but nothing compared to this. I don’t think anyone’s had one to compare with this, at least in terms of the expectations for a drug. I was just talking with some people from the company last week (along with many of my colleagues), looking into employment possibilities. After this, I think we may have to keep moving. I don’t think that Pfizer’s going to be in the mood for hiring.

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