Shares of Eyetech Pharmaceuticals ( EYET) rose Wednesday even though the company late Tuesday said that its third-quarter loss was greater than Wall Street had expected. However, the real test for Eyetech comes in mid-December when the Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule on its application for Macugen, a drug for the sight-robbing disease called wet age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. Two hours after markets had closed Tuesday, Eyetech said it lost $24.7 million, or 60 cents a share, on revenue of $13.5 million. The consensus view among analysts polled by Thomson First Call was for a loss of $17.8 million, or 35 cents a share, on revenue of $15.5 million. For the same period last year, Eyetech lost $14.3 million, or $4.12 a share, on $12.4 million in revenue. In early trading Wednesday, Eyetech's shares climbed 79 cents, or 1.9%, to $41.80. Quarterly financial data is of secondary interest to analysts and investors right now because Eyetech has plenty of financial support from its marketing and development partner Pfizer ( PFE). The big issue is when -- and to what extent -- the FDA approves Macugen. An FDA advisory panel reviewed the drug in late August. Although the panel didn't make a recommendation, analysts say they were encouraged by the proceedings and by comments from some committee members. Investors in Eyetech have also been encouraged by competitors' recent setbacks. On Oct. 14, Alcon ( ACL) said a key late-stage clinical test showed no difference between its experimental steroid drug called Retaane vs. an existing therapy for wet AMD. Despite the results, Alcon vowed it would submit an application to the FDA by year-end. Eight days later, Iridex ( IRIX), a small medical device firm, said preliminary results of its experimental laser treatment for wet AMD showed no significant difference vs. a placebo treatment. Iridex's treatment is called transpupillary thermotherapy, or TTT.
Wet AMD affects an estimated 1.6 million Americans, and is growing at about 200,000 U.S. patients per year. The disease is caused by an overgrowth of new blood vessels in the macula, which is part of the retina and enables fine detailed vision. When these vessels leak blood or fluid, the macula bulges. That causes distorted vision and a decrease in central vision. In many cases, peripheral vision remains, but the erasing of central vision can create legal blindness if the disease attacks both eyes. Eyetech's drug tries to block unwanted blood vessels before they can spread, leak and cause damage. The drug inhibits the activity of vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, a protein that plays a key role in the development of new blood vessels. Genentech ( DNA) also is working on an anti-VEGF drug for the disease. The drug, Lucentis, is in late-stage clinical testing. One big drawback to Macugen is that a doctor must inject it into a patient's eyeball every six weeks. Lucentis is injected into the eyeball every four weeks. Currently, patients have only two treatments. There are thermal lasers, which are fired into the eye, cauterizing the runaway blood vessels. But the lasers just halt the disease's progression, leaving a permanent blind spot where AMD has already done its damage. Lasers don't stop new blood vessels from developing; they don't restore lost sight. The other treatment works for only a small percentage of patients. It requires the intravenous injection of Visudyne, a drug made by Novartis ( NVS) and QLT ( QLTI). The drug is administered every six months. Visudyne chemically sensitizes the eye, which is then exposed to infrared light, also known as a cold laser. This therapy stops unwanted blood vessels from leaking. It doesn't cause blind spots, it doesn't restore lost vision and it doesn't stop the development of new blood vessels. Called photodynamic therapy, this treatment must be repeated every three to four months. This is the therapy against which Alcon's Retaane was being measured.