Wall Street Journal
By Jeanne Whalen
February 5, 2010

GlaxoSmithKline PLC said it will stop research into new antidepressants and focus on diseases for which it believes it can develop more valuable drugs, a major shift for a company that developed some of the biggest-selling antidepressants of the past 20 years.

Profits at the U.K. drug giant, which posted a 66% increase in fourth-quarter earnings Thursday, were long fueled by the antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin, which at their peak generated billions of dollars a year in sales. Similar medicines, such as Eli Lilly & Co.’s Prozac and Pfizer Inc.’s Zoloft, also generated big sales for those companies.

However, low-cost generic copies have eroded demand for name-brand antidepressants, which accounted for just 2.3% of Glaxo’s total sales last year, down from 14% in 2002. Chief Executive Andrew Witty said Thursday that the company thinks further investment in the market wouldn’t be prudent.

Part of the reason is financial risk. Clinical trials of antidepressants are among the “most expensive and highest-risk” of all drug trials, Mr. Witty said, because companies often don’t know until the end of very large studies whether a drug works. It is also hard to prove that a depression drug is working, he said, because patient improvement is measured by subjective mood surveys, and not by the clear-cut blood tests and biological measures used in other diseases.

That’s a drawback in an era when insurers and other health-care payers want to see clear value for their money, Mr. Witty said.

Payers “want big benefits to make it worth their while to invest their resources,” he said, adding that Glaxo would scrap research into pain drugs for the same reasons, focusing instead on diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and a clutch of rare diseases.