Study Questions Merck's Zocor

The study says high doses of its cholesterol drug did not appear to benefit high-risk patients.
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Updated from 9:13 a.m. EDT

For the second time in a week, a top-selling drug of

Merck

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has come up short in a major study.

Research published Monday found that high doses of the cholesterol drug Zocor weren't significantly superior to a placebo or smaller doses in preventing heart attacks in high-risk patients. The study involved almost 4,500 people.

The Merck-sponsored study of Zocor was presented at a European Society of Cardiology meeting in Germany. It also published in an on-line version of of the

Journal of the American Medical Association

to coincide with the presentation.

The economic and stock-market impact of the study is hard to assess. Merck's stock closed Monday at $44.93, down 22 cents on lighter than average volume. Tuesday morning, the stock was up 2 cents to $44.95.

Merck's stock was hit last week after the release of a study sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration that concluded the drugmaker's Vioxx arthritis treatment put users at a greater risk of heart attacks than

Pfizer's

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Celebrex. As a result, one of the nation's largest health-maintenance organizations, Kaiser Permanente -- which contributed resources to the study -- said it would review the drug.

As it was last week, the bad news for Merck is likely to benefit Pfizer, which makes the blockbuster cholesterol fighter Lipitor. Merck's Zocor is the second best-selling drug in the cholesterol-fighting class. Zocor racked up $1.4 billion in sales during the second quarter, up 3% year over year.

One cardiologist, writing a

JAMA

editorial, warned that although a high dose of Zocor didn't show a statistically significant benefit versus a placebo or low-dose Zocor therapy in high-risk heart-attack patients, doctors shouldn't ignore Zocor's "excellent safety and efficacy" at lower doses. Steven E. Nissen, of the Cleveland Clinic, said the higher dose of Zocor should be used "with caution," adding that other high-dose cholesterol drugs are available.

Merck has suffered a reversal of fortune in the past couple of years as it struggles to develop new blockbuster drugs, but management has ruled out a merger or acquisition as a possible solution to its problems. The company plans to eliminate 4,400 jobs worldwide by the end of 2004 as part of a cost-cutting plan.