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Cheaper Eye Drug May Threaten Novartis and Roche Sales

Results of a new study could change the way elderly patients with vision trouble are treated, and create financial implications for Swiss drug giants Novartis and Roche.

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Sean Russell | Getty Images

Kaiser Permanente researchers say the cancer drug Avastin works just as well as the similar eye drug Lucentis in treating the leading cause of adult-onset blindness known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD.) They did a real-world comparison of the two drugs with around 450 patients.

Many eye doctors have been using Avastin instead of Lucentis for AMD because Avastin costs significantly less than Lucentis.

Genentech, now owned by Roche, sells Lucentis in the U.S. Novartis sells the drug in the rest of the world. Last year, Novartis sold $1.2 billion worth of Lucentis. Genentech garnered $875 million in Lucentis revenue in 2008. (Roche reports 2009 earnings later this week.)

Genentech says while doctors are free to choose which drugs they want to use, only Lucentis has been extensively studied, proven safe and effective for AMD and approved by the FDA.

The federal government is doing a much larger, gold-standard, head-to-head study of Lucentis and Avastin. The first results are expected in about a year.