VA Drops Roche’s Avastin for Eye Disease on Infection

(Corrects story published yesterday to add word Pharmaceuticals to name in second paragraph.)

The Department of Veterans Affairs, a provider of health care to more than 5 million people, said it will cease using Roche AG’s Avastin to treat an eye disease as it investigates reports of serious infections and blindness.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. (REGN), the developer of a rival drug for the condition known as wet age-related macular degeneration, rose $10.21, or 16 percent, to $74.56 at 2:16 p.m. in Nasdaq Stock Market trading in reaction.

Avastin is only approved in the U.S. to treat certain cancers. Once a drug is cleared, though, it can be prescribed by doctors for any ailment. Lawmakers have been pressuring U.S. health programs such as Medicare to expand Avastin’s use for the potential savings. Avastin costs about $50 a dose compared with $2,000 for Lucentis, a rival treatment that is approved for the eye disorder.

The medicine, with $6.4 billion in 2010 sales, works in both cancer and the eye disease by preventing blood-vessel growth. The VA decision, announced in an e-mail to Bloomberg News, comes after Food and Drug Administration advisers rejected the drug’s use in breast cancer because of the risk of deadly bleeding. The VA decision may chill future calls to expand Avastin’s uses, said Scott Gottlieb, a former deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at the FDA.

“I don’t think doctors are getting their cues from the VA, but I think you’ll see implications on the policy side,” Gottlieb, who consults for Genentech, the unit of Basel, Switzerland-based Roche that developed the drug. “I think you’ll see proponents less likely to stand up for it.”

VA Investigation

The VA is investigating eye infections at facilities around the country and is no longer using Avastin, the department said in an e-mailed statement.

“Once the investigation is complete, VA will reassess how Avastin and similar therapies may be made available for ophthalmologic use and will issue further guidance,” the statement said.

The FDA last month linked at least a dozen serious eye infections in the Miami area to repackaged Avastin. Some of the cases resulted in blindness.

Roche is aware of reports of patients in Miami, Nashville and Los Angeles who have developed severe eye infections, some resulting in permanent vision loss, after receiving Avastin, Terence Hurley, a spokesman for the company, said. In Miami, the syringes were contaminated with bacteria and the FDA found no evidence of contamination in vials of Avastin, Hurley said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Edney in Washington at aedney@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net.

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