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AstraZeneca Halts Crestor Trial Early on Clear Benefits

AstraZeneca is stopping a clinical trial of its blockbuster cholesterol fighter Crestor early because of the clear benefits of the medicine compared to placebo, the company said on Monday.

The news is a boost for Crestor, the group's third biggest seller, in an increasingly competitive anti-cholesterol market.

It comes as doubts deepen over the value of Vytorin, a rival drug from Schering-Plough and Merck .

"It's a very fortuitous combination for AstraZeneca," said Nomura Code analyst Paul Diggle.

Shares in the Anglo-Swedish group were 2.3 percent higher at 1,891 pence in a weaker European stock market.

Merck and Schering-Plough both fell in pre-market trade in New York as Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers lowered their price targets on the two companies in the wake of criticism of Vytorin at a meeting of U.S. cardiologists at the weekend.

Industry analysts said the decision to halt the Crestor clinical study early, coming on top of Vytorin's problems, would enhance Crestor's standing as a highly effective agent and could reinvigorate sales of the product.

Crestor growth slowed towards the end of last year as it battled for market share against cheap generic simvastatin -- an off-patent version of Merck's Zocor -- and other branded drugs, such as Vytorin and Pfizer Inc's Lipitor.

This year, Diggle believes Crestor can grow 20 percent, achieving worldwide sales of $3.4 billion against $2.8 billion in 2007, helped by clinical data giving it an edge.

Dresdner Kleinwort analysts said they would upgrade their Crestor forecasts significantly. The brokerage currently forecasts Crestor sales of $5.5 billion in 2012.

Crestor is a key product for AstraZeneca at a time when sales of its top-seller, the ulcer pill Nexium, are slowing and both Nexium and its second-biggest drug Seroquel, for schizophrenia, face the threat of generic competition.

Jupiter Study

The so-called Jupiter study was designed to see if giving Crestor to patients with no sign of pre-existing cardiovascular disease and low to normal levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol but raised C-reactive protein (CRP) would reduce heart attacks and other major cardiovascular events.

CRP, an inflammatory biomarker, is known to be associated with heart attack risk.

Independent experts, meeting on March 29, decided there was unequivocal evidence of a reduction in cardiovascular morbidity and mortality among patients on Crestor in the study.

The clear mortality benefits for Crestor contrast with a lack of positive outcomes data for Vytorin, despite the fact it does a very good job at lowering low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol.

Full data on a major clinical trial of Vytorin were presented at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) annual meeting at the weekend.

They failed to quell concerns it might not be as good as originally thought and an ACC expert panel recommended that patients should stick with statin drugs, like simvastatin, Lipitor and Crestor.