Is Novartis seriously scouting for new Alzheimer's drug candidates?

According to an analysis by Bloomberg, Novartis ($NVS) is interested in finding a competitive Alzheimer's drug program. But it's hard to determine from the story if the pharma giant--always reluctant to detail partnering efforts or in-house strategies--has anything specific in mind. 

The feature rests on a few remarks by Tim Wright, who helms Novartis's drug development work. "This remains high on our radar, with high unmet medical need," Wright said recently in a session with analyst Tim Anderson. And some analysts, like Barclays' Michael Leuchten, think a new R&D offensive on Alzheimer's makes good sense--even though it's not easy.

Now that the late-stage pipeline for Alzheimer's has proven a complete bust, with three big drugs--solanezumab, bapineuzumab and more recently Gammagard--failing some ambitious Phase III studies, patient groups have been eager to identify which big players will compete to find the next new drug. Eli Lilly ($ELY) and Johson & Johnson ($JNJ) insist that they haven't given up on their drugs, with Lilly following up with a new Phase III study that will determine if solanezumab could work in early-stage patients. But Sanofi ($SNY) CEO Chris Viehbacher has publicly opted out, leery of a disease with no clear targets. 

In Novartis's case, Bloomberg highlights a deal it struck with Cytos Biotechnology a decade ago for CAD106, an Alzheimer's vaccine now in mid-stage development. In early-stage studies CAD106 spurred development of antibodies against beta amyloid, the toxic plaque that builds up in the brain of Alzheimer's patients. So far, though, drugs targeting beta amyloid in mild to moderate cases have not delivered promising pivotal data, though there are signs that the approach could work in early stages of the disease. But Novartis hasn't had a lot of success with Cytos. The pharma giant recently wrote off their partnership with the biotech on a smoking-cessation vaccine after it failed a clinical study. 

It's unlikely that Novartis will clarify any of this. The company didn't respond to a query from Bloomberg, a reflection of its general lack of interest in explaining its R&D strategy to financial pubs. But it has the same financial interests as every other player in this field. There are no effective therapies for Alzheimer's, and with a desperate patient population eager to find something that works, a new drug could target a market of $8 billion to $10 billion a year. 

- here's the report from Bloomberg