New Drug is Touted as Rival to Prozac

WASHINGTON (AP) — A new type of antidepressant was announced recently by Bristol-Meyers Squibb amid assertions that it combines the best benefits of Prozac with an additional boost, fewer side-effects—and a lower price.

The drug, Serzone, just recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is chemically different from other depression medications. Serzone combines the main mechanisms of the two major classes of antidepressants with fewer instances of at least two troublesome side-effects—insomnia and sexual dysfunction, Bristol-Meyers said.

But the FDA cautioned that no head-to-head comparisons of Serzone had been done to prove that, though it did not directly dispute the company’s claims. Bristol-Meyers based its figures on published reports of other drugs’ effects.

Depression is the nation’s most prevalent mental health problem, afflicting about 15 million Americans at some point in their lives and costing $44 billion a year in medical bills and lost productivity. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on drugs to battle it.

The world’s leading antidepressant is Prozac, the first of a class of drugs called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, that boost the brain levels of serotonin, which regulates moods. An older class of antidepressant, called tricyclics, blocks serotonin receptors in the brain.

Serzone is the first drug to do both, said Dr. Jan Fawcett, psychiatry chairman at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. It specifically blocks one of the most important depression receptors, one called 5HT2, he said.

Clinical trials have shown Serzone to be as effective at alleviating depression as other drugs. But Serzone, which is taken twice a day, shows little sign of causing sleep disturbance, while as many as one in five patients taking an SSRI drug also are prescribed a sleep aid, said Dr. Sheldon Preskorn of the University of Kansas, who tested the drug for Bristol-Myers. And the labels of the three SSRI drugs say the incidence of sexual problems, ranging from abnormal ejaculation to decreased libido, vary from 1.9% to 15%. Some studies, Bristol-Meyers argued, indicate that the problems may really affect up to 40% of patients. The incidence of sexual problems among Serzone patients is 1.5%, the company said.

To boost Serzone, Bristol-Meyers is undercutting competitors’ prices. Serzone will cost $1.66 a day wholesale regardless of whether the patient needs 200 mg or 600 mg, said Samuel Barker, president of U.S. pharmaceuticals for Bristol-Meyers. Prozac, in contrast, costs $2.17 a day wholesale, and most manufacturers increase the price of higher doses of medicine, Barker noted. Prozac maker Eli Lilly & Co, had no immediate comment on Serzone.

Copyright 1995, Associated Press. Reprinted with permission.

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