Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reportedly sat on the results of an analysis conducted by its own researchers finding that its “blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis therapy Enbrel, a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, appeared to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 64 percent,” The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
Why did company executives decide to keep this information from the public? After three years of internal review, Pfizer determined that Enbrel was unlikely to hold promise due to its inability to breach the blood-brain barrier and directly affect brain tissue.
When a successful clinical trial was deemed unlikely, the company set the research aside and opted against publishing the data.
The analysis came from Pfizer’s division of inflammation and immunology, and researchers urged the company to move forward with clinical trials, which would have entailed thousands of patients and cost an estimated $80 million.
That Pfizer would not only forego the recommendation but also withhold the data from public view was frustrating — if not unethical — to some outside the company who say the reward for current and future Alzheimer’s patients could be extraordinary.
Rudolph E. Tanzi, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher and professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Post that Pfizer absolutely should have made the information public.
Likewise, Keenan Walker, an assistant professor of medicine at John Hopkins, said the data should be available to those conducting research outside of Pfizer. Walker is currently researching the role of inflammation in the development of the disease.
“It would benefit the scientific community to have that data out there. Whether it was positive data or negative data, it gives us more information to make better informed decisions,” he said.
The fact that Pfizer no longer holds a monopoly on Enbrel — its patent expired last year, allowing generic versions to enter the market this year — did not escape anyone’s attention. A former Pfizer executive told The Post that opting against the financial gamble of clinical trials was a solid business move for the company.
A second former executive, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company offered little in the way of an explanation when it made a final decision not to further investigate the drug, telling The Post, “I think the financial case is they won’t be making any money off of it.”
As the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s receives increased attention, Enbrel has popped up more than once as a possible treatment.
At Pfizer, researchers picked up the connection between the drug and the disease in 2015 when they analyzed “hundreds of thousands of medical insurance claims involving people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, according to the Pfizer PowerPoint obtained by The Post.”
The following year, researchers from Dartmouth and Harvard universities published findings from a similar study of insurance claims that mirrored Pfizer researchers’ conclusions: Enbrel “shows promise as a potential treatment’’ for Alzheimer’s, the report stated.
This, along with evidence that peripheral inflammation — inflammation outside the brain — influences brain function, has led some Alzheimer’s researchers to believe Enbrel could very well be effective in mitigating the effects of the disease, as well as disappointed that Pfizer would limit its data’s reach.