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Monday, January 16, 2006

Drug firms eye fat profits from new obesity pills

A marijuana joint might seem an odd starting point in the search for weight-loss secrets.

Yet a compound switching off the same brain circuits that make people hungry when they smoke cannabis looks set to become the world's first blockbuster anti-obesity medicine, with sales tipped by analysts to top $3 billion a year.

Sanofi-Aventis SA's Acomplia, or rimonabant, which could be approved by U.S. regulators as early as next month, is the first of a new wave of treatments that may spell fat profits for some pharmaceutical companies.

Another two experimental drugs from Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc and Alizyme Plc, with different mechanisms of action, have also produced promising clinical results in recent weeks, prompting some investors to start laying big bets on weight-loss medicine.

It is a risky area, however.

Slimming pills have had a checkered history, due to modest effectiveness and adverse side effects -- most notoriously with the diet drug combination "fen-phen," which was linked to heart-valve problems and has cost Wyeth more than $21 billion in provisions related to patient claims.

But past upsets have not deterred drug manufacturers from investing heavily in a new generation of possible winners.


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