Fish oil has been touted as useful for everything from growing hair to treating clinical depression. Now drug makers are stepping up their promotion of its benefits for treating heart disease.
AstraZeneca, Amarin and GlaxoSmithKline are betting the market for prescription fish-oil pills will follow the success of cholesterol-lowering drugs including Lipitor, once the world's best-selling medicine with revenue of $13 billion a year.
Heart disease remains the world's biggest killer, accounting for 30 percent of global deaths, even as statins and other treatments have become more widely used. Now that Lipitor and many other statins have cheaper, generic competitors, drugmakers are looking for new ways to tackle the array of conditions that can lead to heart disease, including coupling triglyceride treatments with existing cholesterol-lowering pills for a one-two punch.
"The number of people with elevated triglyceride levels is rising rapidly across the world, due in part to the increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes," AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said when he bought fish-oil pill maker Omthera Pharmaceuticals Inc. for $443 million last month. "There is a clear need for effective and convenient alternatives to some of the existing treatments."
Unlike capsules that can be bought in health-food stores, the drugmakers' products are available only with a prescription, are highly concentrated and undergo a several-step purification process approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
There's a hitch, however. Statins have been proven in studies to cut heart risk. The benefits of fish-oil pills are less certain. Though they target triglycerides, fatty substances in the blood that have been linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, little evidence exists that the pills prevent heart attacks.
"It's very unclear what role fatty acids play for cardiac patients," Mark Urman, a member of the American College of Cardiology Prevention Committee and practicing cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, said in an interview. "The lab tests look better, but has it done the patient any good?"