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Pfizer Rheumatoid Arthritis Medicine Could Prevent Alzheimer, What Happened?

The story here began when some researchers inside Pfizer’s offices in Pennsylvania did a statistical analysis. Analysis of claims data, which is hundreds of thousands of insurance claims, patient records, anonymous patient records. They discovered something really interesting. The fact that their drug Enbrel, which is for rheumatoid arthritis, had the side benefit of helping people avoid getting Alzheimer’s in the first place.

Pfizer and Alzheimer

Pfizer and Alzheimer

There were some people internally in Pfizer who had discovered this data. These people were pushing hard for the company to do a clinical trial, which would be to prove whether or not this could actually work. You can’t prove anything from just looking at insurance data. It’s not accurate enough. Therefore, it’s not scientific, really, rigorous enough. Pfizer decided not to do that, and that’s where the point of Pfizer and Alzheimer controversy came in.

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Drug Life Cycle

So, every drug has sort of a life cycle. The problem for Pfizer was that Enbrel is reaching the end of its life cycle. It now faces generic competition. So even if it did produce evidence that Enbrel could reduce the chance of someone getting Alzheimer’s disease, it wouldn’t have been able to make much money on the drug. Why? because it’s already facing generic competition.

Pfizer’s Standpoint

It wouldn’t have exclusive rights to make money on the drug. So, from Pfizer’s standpoint, they say that market consideration did not play a role in their decision not to move forward with this. The company said definitively that the science for them didn’t work. I think it’s fairly common that companies do decide not to pursue an avenue of a drug, a separate indication, or a separate disease. Therefore, the reason is that they can no longer make money on it, that there’s not a good market for it.

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The difference, in this Pfizer and Alzheimer case, is that it’s Alzheimer’s disease, which is a major public health problem. So it raises the significance of the decision making in this case.

Science and Markets

One thing that this episode reveals is that it’s a really frustrating road to develop potential cures or treatments or preventions for Alzheimer’s. It’s been an exceedingly frustrating and difficult road for not just companies themselves. But for policyholders and researchers, as well. However, this Pfizer and Alzheimer story shows why the combination of science and market considerations can really stymie efforts to move forward.


Christopher Rowland – Washington Post Reporter

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