Merck's New Drug Approved to Treat Glaucoma

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Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug to treat the common eye condition, glaucoma. The new drug, called Zioptan, is manufactured by Merck & Co. (NYSE: MRK) to treat elevated levels of intraocular pressure (IOP), or eye pressure, in people with ocular hypertension, or a type of glaucoma.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the second most common cause of blindness in the United States is glaucoma. For Hispanics and African Americans, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness, reports the National Institutes of Health. Other statistics indicate that one in 200 people 50 years of age and younger are affected by glaucoma. 

Dubbed the "silent thief of sight," glaucoma often develops with no tell-tale symptoms to its victim, and often goes undetected until it's discovered at a routine eye exam. However, successful lowering of eye pressure can help patients with glaucoma avoid further vision loss.

Merck touts Zioptan as the first preservative-free solution to treat glaucoma. Because preservatives used in many glaucoma drugs can result in adverse side effects such as allergic reaction, iris color changes, and eye burning and stinging, Zioptan may be an alternative for people who can't use glaucoma drops containing preservatives.

The results of five clinical trials tracking 905 patients using Zioptan revealed that the drug lowered intraocular pressure by 6-8 mmHg and 5-8 mmHg after three to six months of use, respectively. Side effects of Zioptan have been noted, including redness in the eyes, pigment tissue changes where administered, conjunctival hyperemia, and eyelash growth.

That said, Zioptan comes into the market initially at a price tag of $97 for a month's supply. While it may be touted as the first preservative-free glaucoma drop medication, Zioptan does enter the market where there are other generic -- and cheaper -- options.

For example, in April of last year, Mylan Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MYL) launched a generic version of Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE) Xalantan, after receiving approval from the FDA. Xalatan, or latanoprost, used to treat glaucoma and ocular hypertension, had its patent expire in March 2011 -- after its successful run since 1996. Before its patent expiration, Pfizer was realizing annual sales approximating $1.6 billion. Additionally, in 2009, Pfizer entered an agreement with Bausch & Lomb to co-promote Xalatan.

Merck's Zioptan is expected to be available to consumers next month.

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