NEW YORK (Reuters) - After pulling the plug on an experimental obesity drug from a troubled class of medicines, Pfizer Inc's Chief Executive Jeff Kindler said the world's largest drug maker would continue to pursue treatments for the emerging health crisis.
Whether from its own research and development or through licensing deals, Kindler is hopeful Pfizer can come up with a viable weight loss drug.
"We have a group of scientists that spend a lot of time on discovery in that area and it is certainly something that we look to doing both internally and with alliances," Kindler said at the Reuters Health Summit in New York on Thursday.
"It's a huge unmet medical need that has to be addressed and we hope to be at the forefront of that science," Kindler said, echoing similar comments from top executives of Merck and AstraZeneca about the need for obesity medicines.
Earlier this month, Pfizer joined a growing list of drug makers that abandoned obesity treatments which work as an appetite suppressant by blocking the receptors in the brain that make people hungry after smoking marijuana.
The company said it was terminating late stage development of its experimental obesity drug, CP-945,598, citing a more conservative regulatory climate and problems seen with other medicines from the same class.
The class of drugs known as cannabinoid receptor antagonists have been linked to psychiatric side effects, such as depression and suicidal thoughts.
Merck & Co, Belgium's Solvay SA and AstraZeneca PLC -- whose Acomplia was the first medicine in what was once seen as a promising class -- recently pulled the plug on their cannabinoid weight loss drugs.
AstraZeneca has another experimental cannabinoid obesity drug called AZD2207 in mid-stage development that it has yet to declare dead in the water.
AstraZeneca CEO David Brennan declined this week to divulge the fate of that drug, but it appears to be a longshot to reach the market at this point.
"If this is a class issue then it's going to be difficult," Brennan said of the psychiatric side effects seen with similar drugs. "But we look at it the context of does our compound have some unique differentiating characteristics."
Despite its own disappointment with its taranabant cannabinoid drug Merck, like Pfizer, plans to forge ahead with research in the chemical weight loss arena.
"We're putting major resources into obesity both internally and externally," Merck CEO Richard Clark told the Health Summit this week.
Obesity is emerging as one of the biggest health crises facing the developed world. It is expected to weigh heavily on future health care costs because it leads to serious chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in July that more than a quarter of all Americans are now classified as obese with children a fast growing part of the epidemic.
Kindler called obesity "a critically important unmet medical need."
"It involves so many different aspects," he said. "It's not just the biological and potentially hereditary issues but there are behavioral and cultural issues associated with it.
"But from a medical point of view, it's a tough nut to crack."
(For summit blog: summitnotebook.reuters.com/)
Editing by Leslie Gevirtz