Several biotechnology firms announced progress today with new drugs aimed at helping patients suffering from heart failure.

Among the first new treatments in years, the new drugs are creating a buzz among the medical community that treats heart disease, one of the U.S.'s deadliest diseases and also one of its fastest-spreading, increasing about 10% per year.

Genentech ( DNA), the South San Francisco, Calif.- biotech company, and Swiss biotech partner Actelion said today that their experimental intravenous drug Veletri (tezosentan) showed statistically significant improvements in blood circulation as well as in other heart measures, such as the amount of blood pumped by the heart.

The results came from an advanced study of 292 patients hospitalized for acute heart failure and were presented today at the American College of Cardiology conference in Orlando, Fla.

Genentech and Actelion are conducting additional trials for Veletri, with results expected later this year. The companies hope to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for the drug in 2002.

In a separate announcement, biotech firm Scios ( SCIO) said Tuesday that its intravenous heart drug, Natrecor (nesiritide), improves blood circulation and alleviates symptoms associated with acute congestive heart failure.

In a study of 1,700 patients suffering from congestive heart failure, Natrecor was shown to rapidly improve blood circulation and alleviate shortness of breath and fatigue, the company said. The study was reviewed in this week's issue of the Journal of Cardiac Failure. The company added the study's result to its FDA application for approval of Natrecor.

If approved, Natrecor would be the first new treatment for acute congestive heart failure in more than a decade.

Five million Americans suffer from heart failure. There are about 1 million hospitalizations that cost the health care system $23 billion annually. Drugs like Natrecor, if approved, could help patients suffering from life-threatening heart failure, but also could reduce the cost of treatment.

John Sonnier, analyst with Prudential Vector Healthcare Group, expects ongoing trials of Natrecor to prove that the drug's use will reduce the length of hospital stays, which will reduce costs for patients and hospitals. That in turn will speed its adoption, he wrote in a research note. (Sonnier rates Scios a strong buy, and his firm has not done underwriting for Scios.)

In recent trading, Genentech was up 59 cents to $48.09. Scios was up 25 cents to $20.12.

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