After a decade as rivals, drugmakers Merck & Co and Roche are teaming up to market their hepatitis C medicines just as drugs from a new class are about to transform treatment of the tough to cure virus.
Merck’s Victrelis, approved last Friday, and Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals, expected to be approved soon, are the first new treatments for hepatitis C in about 20 years. They significantly boost cure rates when used in combination with the current mainstay drugs, which cause flu-like side effects for months and still don’t cure most patients.
Merck, looking to maximize the benefit of being first to market, said on Tuesday it has reached a deal under which Roche Holding AG sales representatives will promote Merck’s Victrelis pills as part of a new triple combination therapy, with Roche’s injected hepatitis C drug Pegasys and ribavirin pills.
“We’re maximizing the potential of our new drug” with this deal, Merck spokesman Ian McConnell said in an interview.
Merck salespeople will promote Victrelis along with its similar injected drug, PEG-Intron, and ribavirin. Ribavirin is available as a cheap generic as well as Merck’s brand-name drug, Rebetol, and Roche’s brand, Copegus.
“Triple combination therapy for hepatitis C marks a major change in the way this disease is treated,” Pascal Soriot, chief operating officer of Roche’s pharmaceuticals division, said in a statement.
The Roche sales force will start promoting the three-drug combination, likely to cost tens of thousands of US dollars for months of treatment, to US physicians, then expand to other countries. The two companies also will educate patients about hepatitis C diagnosis and treatment options.
Meanwhile, researchers at Merck, which is based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, and Switzerland’s Roche will collaborate on testing new combinations of existing and experimental hepatitis C medicines from their companies.
The partnership comes after Roche and Merck’s Schering-Plough unit spent more than a decade battling for supremacy in the market for hepatitis C drugs. Roche and Schering each produced ribavirin pills and long-acting, genetically engineered versions of the immune system protein interferon: Roche’s Pegasys and Schering-Plough’s PEG-Intron.
Those injected drugs, together with ribavirin, boost the immune system to fight the hepatitis C virus.
Victrelis and Incivek are part of a new drug class called hepatitis C virus protease inhibitors that block an enzyme needed for the virus to copy itself.