NIH, companies aim to teach old drugs new tricks

Associated Press Modified: May 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm •  Published: May 3, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three pharmaceutical giants are unlocking their freezers to see if government-funded scientists can reinvent some of their old drugs.

Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly & Co. entered a unique program with the National Institutes of Health on Thursday that both sides hope will speed the development of new treatments — by dusting off two dozen old drugs that failed to treat one disease but might treat another.

"The goal is simple, to see whether we can teach old drugs new tricks," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Lots of experimental drugs prove safe in early human testing but fail to help the disease their manufacturer had hoped to treat. Despite the years of work and tens of millions of dollars invested in them, "too many times these compounds, they end up sitting on shelves or they end up in somebody's freezer," said Pfizer senior vice president Rod MacKenzie.

Some of those drugs might be able to fight other diseases, said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.

Consider: A failed cancer drug turned into the first effective AIDS treatment, AZT. The notorious thalidomide caused birth defects in the 1960s when some countries used it for morning sickness, but today it treats multiple myeloma. The bone drug raloxifene was found to also help prevent breast cancer.

Those discoveries "all have been sort of serendipitous. The idea here is, let's not depend on serendipity," Collins said.

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