Can Pfizer’s Love Hormone Cut Down Maternal Mortality?

Oxytocin is a brain chemical that helps the uterus contract after birth and is occasionally referred to as the “love hormone” because of its role in couples’ bonding. Used preventatively, it can actually cut the rate of post-delivery bleeding complications in half by causing muscles in the uterus to contract, which closes off damaged blood vessels. Using a technology similar to the one pioneered in Pfizer’s (NYSE:PFE) failed inhalable insulin, Melbourne’s Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences has developed a new hormone treatment, this time aimed at fighting the leading cause of maternal mortality.

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This improvement will be especially important for women in Africa, where post-partum hemorrhaging, the primary cause of nearly 25 percent of maternal deaths worldwide, is most frequent. Inhalations not only avoid unpleasant injections, but, in the case of oxytocin, also avoid the need for refrigerated storage and sterile needles. Both these factors have limited the hormone’s use in Africa. There, approximately 10.5 percent of women encounter excessive bleeding after childbirth, according to the World Health Organization.

Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences received a donation of more than $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a method for delivering oxytocin via a disposable inhaler — which is the size of a small whistle and requires no specific training to use. Fewer than half of births in Africa are attended by someone skilled in midwifery, according to the WHO, making oxytocin an essential medicine that countries should stockpile.

The project is one of several that are testing inhalations to deliver medicines, using practical knowledge Pfizer gained in developing its own insulin treatment, which was taken off the market after 14 months of lackluster sales. This move cost the company $2.8 billion dollars. “Exubera was the first generation,” John Patton, one of the original inventors of Pfizer’s inhaled insulin technology system, told Bloomberg. “When you’re first, you take a lot of bullets. With the developments in the industry, it’s just a matter of time before we will be inhaling lots of medicine.”

The lead scientist for the Monash project, Michelle McIntosh, told the publication that the group has plans to start testing a dry, powdered form of oxytocin by early 2014. Other companies, including Patton’s Dance Biopharm and Mannkind Corp (NASDAQ:MNKD), are working on other inhalable treatments. Doctors already use inhaled drugs to address respiratory conditions such as asthma and influenza, and the treatment could also be used to treat weight loss and pain, according to Patton, whose former company — Nektar Therapeutics (NASDAQ:NKTR) — worked with Pfizer on Exubera until 2007.

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The challenge for scientists is to create dry, powdered formulations of liquid drugs so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the tiny blood vessels in the lungs without losing their potency.

Mannkind, which has seen its stock price more than double so far in 2013, is scheduled to report the results of late-stage tests in August for its drug Afrezza, an insulin inhalant. The treatment has the potential to “revolutionize the treatment of diabetes” because the hormone acts faster to control blood-sugar levels when inhaled, Chief Financial Officer Matthew Pfeffer told Bloomberg. In comparison, Pfizer’s Exubera was “relatively crude by today’s standard,” he said.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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