Cholesterol Study Sinks Drug Makers' Stocks

A study released Monday of adults with heart disease found no evidence that using cholesterol drugs Vytorin and Zetia lowers heart-valve disease. The study's results sent shares of the companies that make the drugs tumbling.

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Shares of two leading pharmaceutical companies had their turn to drop sharply on Wall Street yesterday. Investors were reacting to a study that raises new questions about the effectiveness of a cholesterol drug. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.

JIM ZARROLI: Vytorin and a related drug called Zetia generate sales of four and a half billion dollars a year, thanks in part to the drug's ubiquitous TV commercials.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Man: Cholesterol, it can come from Fettuccini Alfredo, but also from your Grandpa Alfredo.

ZARROLI: But use of the drugs has declined by 25 percent since January, when a study came out saying there's no evidence Vytorin is anymore effective than cheaper statin drugs. The study released yesterday did nothing to reverse the drug's fortunes. It said there's no evidence Vytorin lowers the risk of heart-valve disease or reduces the need for heart-valve surgery, although it did say the drug has some benefits, such as reducing the need for coronary bypass surgery. The study also showed the drug has a slightly higher risk of giving people cancer, although the researchers were quick to say that result might have been due to chance.

Still, shares of the two companies that make Vytorin, Schering-Plough and Merck, fell 11 and 6 percent respectively. The two companies had waited until the report came out to release their most recent earnings. Merck said yesterday that its earnings rose last quarter compared to the same period the year before. But it also said it wouldn't try to give shareholders any long term financial guidance until it had a chance to assess the Vytorin study.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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