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Merrill Lynch analysts see the market of treatments for the symptoms of multiple sclerosis surging to six billion dollars a year, the investment bank says in a report published today.

Sales of treatments for various stages of the disease - Serono's Rebif, Avonex's Biogen, Betaseron by Schering and Copaxone by Israel's

Teva Pharmaceuticals



) totaled $2.3 billion in 2001, writes the team of biotechnology analysts, headed by Erica Whittaker.

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She sees sales surging by about 18% in 2002 to $2.8 billion, and steadily climbing in the next five years to around $4 billion in 2006.

The two "new kids on the block", Copaxone and Rebif, are steadily gnawing into the market share of veteran treatments Avonex and Betaseron, Whittaker writes. She expects the trend to persist in the future.

Meanwhile, Pfizer today began to implement its agreement to market Serono's Rebif in the U.S. market, among the nation's 17,000 registered neurologists. The first results of the Serono-Pfizer alliance should become evident in three to six months, she estimates.

"Copaxone is the dark horse in Europe", Whittaker says, after the success of Teva's non-interferon product rollout caught the beta-interferon product makers by surprise. It will take the rivals' marketing campaigns months to catch up and impact on Copaxone, she says.

Meanwhile, Copaxone has snatched a 14-15% market share in the European nations where it has been launched.

MS, an incurable disease causing the progressive deterioration of the nervous system, is thought to affect about a million people worldwide and 350,000 in the United States. Copaxone has been shown to have fewer side effects than interferon-based treatments, but the Teva drug still lacks "robust" clinical data, Whittaker notes.