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Merck climbs after board OKs study continuation

The Associated Press

Shares of Merck & Co. climbed Tuesday after the drugmaker said a data safety monitoring board recommended that a study of its cholesterol drug Vytorin should continue.

THE SPARK: The study, called IMPROVE-IT, is meant to determine whether Vytorin reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke and death in heart disease patients, which is the ultimate purpose of cholesterol drugs. The trial involves more than 18,000 patients. Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., said it should conclude in September 2014.

Merck has said the study should answer the question of whether lowering bad, or LDL, cholesterol to very low levels with Vytorin could reduce heart attacks and strokes more than generic versions of its older cholesterol treatment Zocor alone could do.

THE BIG PICTURE: Vytorin combines generic Zocor, with Zetia, a Merck drug still under patent that reduces bad cholesterol in a different way. It was launched in 2004 and has faced challenges.

Research released in January 2008, based on imaging of neck arteries, indicated pricey Vytorin was no more effective at limiting plaque buildup in arteries than inexpensive generic Zocor. Vytorin sales began to slide once the unfavorable results were known.

In July 2008, preliminary results from another study indicated a possible increased risk of cancer in patients getting Vytorin, further reducing its sales. More than a year later, federal regulators said there was no evidence Vytorin causes cancer.

Merck, the world's third largest drugmaker, has been hoping the IMPROVE-IT results would show Vytorin's value and boost sales of both Vytorin and Zetia.

THE ANALYSIS: Some analysts had expressed concern that the study could fail after the committee analyzed it.

Merck's announcement will likely help the stock in the near term, Citi Investment Research analyst Andrew S. Baum said in a research note. But he added that he remained doubtful that a final analysis will show that Vytorin is more effective than generic competition.

SHARE ACTION: Up 3.2 percent, or $1.40, to $45.06 Tuesday morning, making it the top gainer on the Dow Jones industrial average, while broader trading indexes were nearly flat. The stock had already climbed more than 6 percent by Monday since closing 2012 at $40.94.