Pharma giants' oral EPO alternatives could cater to dopers

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty has high hopes for an experimental pill his company is developing for anemia, as the drug could offer an oral alternative to injected EPO therapies. Japanese drugmaker Astellas and other outfits stand to gain from similar pills in development. Yet the potential blockbuster pills offer plenty of potential for abuse too, Reuters reports.

The oral drugs mimic the effect of high altitudes on the body to spur red blood cell production and are easily swallowed as opposed to injected EPO treatments, which have already been implicated in scandals involving the disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong and others. The pills could entice cheating athletes as well. Glaxo ($GSK) and Astellas have pledged to do their part in preventing abuse of their oral agents, Reuters reported, and GSK last year informed the World Anti-Doping Agency that the company has a developmental drug that could boost red blood cell production.

For the industry, however, the doping issue might be a sideshow for what could be a major new class of treatments for anemia and other illnesses. Witty has highlighted Glaxo's red blood cell-boosting pill, codenamed GSK 1278863, as one of the top experimental contenders in the London-based drugmaker's pipeline. And the company has begun Phase II testing of the pill, which evolved from discovery of prolyl hydroxylase enzymes in the University of Oxford lab of Peter Ratcliffe.

"The potential advantage over EPO is that these drugs are pills and they also do other things that support the action of EPO, including facilitating the absorption of iron," Ratcliffe said, as quoted by the news wire. "It could be an important new area of medicine, which is exciting to explore."

Sales of EPO injections have dropped over concerns about the side effects of such treatments, though the biotech giant Amgen ($AMGN) maintains multibillion-dollar franchise with the treatments Epogen and Aranesp. And the safety of the oral alternatives is crucial to their success on the market. Astellas and its partner FibroGen last year began a late-stage study of their contender called ASP1517 to treat anemia in patients with chronic kidney disease.

Mike Allen, head of urology and nephrology at Astellas, told Reuters that the candidate has so far shown less risk of raising blood pressure than EPO injections. Yet any previous results will have to stand up to the Phase III testing under way.

- check out Reuters' article
- and FibroGen's Dec. 2012 release about the Phase III

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