Anglo-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca PLC (AZN) and Abbott Laboratories (ABT) of the U.S. said Wednesday they plan to develop and market a new combination cholesterol pill, the latest move toward the development of more sophisticated cholesterol drugs.

The companies will study the combination in a single pill of AstraZeneca's cholesterol-lowering medicine Crestor with Abbott's TriCor, a drug that has been approved to treat dyslipidemia, or abnormal levels of substances in the bloodstream that are linked to heart disease (extended pharmaceutical pipeline at www.chartsbank.com/PipelineList.aspx). They'll also study a second combination of Crestor with Abbott's follow-up to TriCor known as ABT-335, which is in Phase III trials. They would then choose one of the combinations for final development and commercialization.

AstraZeneca and Abbott indicated both combinations have the potential to offer a three-pronged approach to reducing the risk for heart disease: lowering so-called bad cholesterol, boosting good cholesterol, and reducing triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the bloodstream. Currently, Crestor alone has been shown to reduce bad cholesterol, while TriCor's primary benefits are to reduce triglycerides and raise good cholesterol.

"This allows us to begin studying TriCor and Crestor together to make a single pill which can really manage all the three major lipids, hopefully more effectively than any combination available," Jim Stolzenbach, a physician in Abbott's clinical development program, said in an interview.

Tricor is licensed to Abbott for the U.S. market by Solvay S.A. (SOLB.BT) of Belgium, and both companies are developing ABT-335 as a next-generation version of Tricor. They are known as a fenofibrates.

AstraZeneca and Abbott expect to file for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of one of the combinations in 2009.
For AstraZeneca, the move fits into Chief Executive David Brennan's strategy to boost growth from existing drugs through additional uses while the company's pipeline matures in the next five years.

"We believe that our internal research capabilities are core to our success," AstraZeneca spokeswoman Carla Burigatto said. "We recognize there's a need to supplement it with external opportunities."

One London-based analyst said the planned combination treatment is a positive step forward for AstraZeneca, since it's likely to open up a market with good potential.
AstraZeneca shares moved up 0.5% on the news, which was released late afternoon London time. They closed down 0.78%, or 25 pence, at 3179 pence on the day amid a lower London market. The American depositary receipts fell $1.15 to $58.92. Abbott shares rose 7 cents to $43.65.

The deal represents the latest move into developing combination cholesterol pills with various mechanisms. One such example is Vytorin, which contains Merck & Co.'s (MRK) Zocor, a statin drug that lowers bad cholesterol levels, and Zetia, a treatment developed by Schering-Plough Corp. (SGP) that blocks cholesterol absorption from the intestine. Vytorin and Zetia are marketed by a joint venture of the companies.
Also, Merck is studying a combination of Zocor with a version of niacin, a drug that can raise good cholesterol levels. Pfizer Inc. (PFE) is studying a drug called torcetrapib, which also may raise good cholesterol, in combination with Lipitor, a statin and the best-selling drug in the world.
From a health standpoint, these combination therapies hold promise to further reduce the risk of heart disease beyond what statins alone can deliver.

And for the companies, the development of combination drugs has strategic value. Patents for two statins, Merck's Zocor and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s (BMY) Pravachol, recently expired, clearing the way for cheaper generic statins. The branded drug companies want to soften the blow of generic competition by coming up with newer medicines that can command higher prices.

Abbott had already been studying ABT-335 in combination with Crestor as well as with two other statins, Lipitor and Zocor. Stolzenbach of Abbott said Crestor was the most potent of the statins.

Crestor was AstraZeneca's fifth-biggest selling drug last year, with worldwide sales of $1.27 billion, representing a 38% increase from 2004. Its sales were recently given a boost by a clinical trial that showed it could reverse plaque buildup in the arteries. Previous studies had indicated that statins could slow or halt plaque buildup.

Abbott reported 2005 TriCor sales of $927 million, up 19% from 2004.

The AstraZeneca-Abbott agreement is subject to satisfying certain conditions including U.S. antitrust clearance.
In a separate statement, Solvay, which licensed TriCor to Abbott, said it expects the joint venture between AstraZeneca and Abbott will boost revenue it derives from its "fenofibrate franchise."

In the first quarter of 2006, Abbott reported TriCor sales of $205 million, up 20% compared with the same period a year earlier.

Solvay closed down EUR0.9, or 1%, at EUR90.10 in Brussels.