Having announced conservative sales and earnings forecasts for 2007 last

week, Merck & Co yesterday outlined the highlights of its R&D pipeline to

analysts and investors in a briefing that contained few surprises.

Next year, the company is planning to file three New Drug Applications: MK-518, a first-in-class HIV integrase inhibitor; the insomnia drug

gaboxadol, being developed with Lundbeck; and cholesterol-lowerer MK-524A, which the firm says is an extended-release niacin combined with a novel flushing pathway inhibitor.

Furthermore, Merck is hoping to have another four products in Phase III

trials by mid-2007. First up is MK-524B, which combines Merck’s big-selling statin Zocor (simvastatin), now facing generic competition, with the aforementioned MK-524A, while the firm also has high hopes for weight-loss srug MK-364, a highly selective cannabinoid-1 (CB-1) receptor inverse agonist that has shown to be efficacious in weight loss versus placebo and is in the same class as Sanofi-Aventis’ Acomplia (rimonabant).

The other two going into Phase III are MK-974 for migraines and MK-822, which treats osteoporosis by blocking a protein called Cathepsin K.

High hopes for MK-859

Head of research at Merck, Peter Kim, made special mention of the Phase II drug MK-859, which raised levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol by more than 50% in clinical trials, without raising blood pressure or causing serious cardiovascular side effects. It belongs to the same class of drugs as torcetrapib, Pfizer’s high-profile experimental medicine which was recently terminated.

He also spoke in glowing terms of cancer drug MK-457, now in Phase II

trials for a wide variety of tumours. It inhibits Aurora kinase which may

be a potent inducer of apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

Dr Kim concluded that Merck has already delivered an almost four-fold increase in research productivity in its early-stage pipeline since 2002, which has been helped by integrating advances in genomic research into its drug target discovery.