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Merck CEO pledges to persist with 'good' cholesterol drug program

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Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier

Even as failures in the field pile up, Merck ($MRK) CEO Kenneth Frazier is pushing ahead with a massive development program for a drug to boost HDL or "good" cholesterol. And despite growing doubts about the prospects for such treatments, he appears to see the risky bet worth the potential payoff if the company's experimental therapy, anacetrapib, succeeds in late-stage studies.

Reuters' Ben Hirschler reported Frazier's thoughts on the CETP blocker from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where big ideas in healthcare are often discussed among the global elite.

Frazier's stance on anacetrapib should come as no surprise. Under pressure to deliver new blockbusters after years of lackluster R&D productivity, Big Pharma chiefs have rolled the dice on huge drug-development programs for new cardiovascular and Alzheimer's meds despite long odds of success.

The CEO needs to look no further than Pfizer's ($PFE) and Roche's ($RHHBY) failures with CETP programs for reasons to pull the plug on anacetrapib. Plus, Merck's own HDL drug Tredaptive, which has a different mechanism for boosting good cholesterol, flamed out in a Phase III last month and was pulled from the market in Europe. However, analysts project anacetrapib sales could surpass $3 billion per year if Merck wins its bet on the program.

"It's certainly not a slam dunk," Frazier told Hirschler of the anacetrapib program, "but I believe that given the properties of the drug, it is an experiment well worth conducting."

In a proverbial CETP-program casino, Frazier sits right next to Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter, whose company ($LLY) is in late-stage development with a similar drug, evacetrapib. Lechleiter hardly has a hot hand with big R&D programs, though, after losing with Phase III studies of the Alzheimer's drug solanezumab last year.

- check out Hirschler's article

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