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Women's Health: Big Money for Big Pharma

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The pharmaceutical industry is jumping headlong into the women's health initiative as more drugs emerge to treat uniquely female diseases.

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Women have long decried that their medical needs are ignored while drugs for men flourish. Men have drugs for just about everything, and more are in the works. If a man has prostate cancer, well there's a vaccine for that now. If a man can't perform in bed, there are plenty of pills he can pop. (There's even a spray being developed to help men perform longer.)

Even broader disease categories, like cardiovascular health, have long been geared toward men. It wasn't until recently that health professionals began publicizing that women's symptoms for a heart attack can be very different from men's symptoms, despite heart disease being the leading cause of death in women.

Despite the slow start, the women's health revolution has been taking more cohesive shape. Pharmaceutical companies are beginning to focus more on how drugs can affect both men and women. Many companies are even addressing more of the problems that are unique to women -- gynecological issues, osteoporosis, menopause, and even female sexual desire.

"I have long maintained, if men had hysterectomies, or experienced menopause or hormonal issues; this problem would have been solved decades ago. It's time for women to be heard," says Michelle King Robson, a women's health advocate and founder of the women's health-centric media company EmpowHER. She's pointed out that Pfizer's (PFE) Viagra has been on the market for more than a decade while sexual-enhancement medications are just now facing the FDA. "This is a step in the right direction. Flibanserin won't be the silver bullet for all women, but that is not the point. The point is that women's sexual health is, by virtue of this FDA hearing and the preponderance of this drug, being given its due."

Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals is currently trying to get approval for flibanserin -- a Viagra for women. Flibanserin isn't a hormone treatment, but rather it affects a woman's brain chemicals and was originally designed as an antidepressant. An FDA advisory panel will decide on June 18 if pharmaceuticals are for her pleasure, too. And Boehringer Ingelheim isn't in bed alone; Biosante Pharmaceuticals (BPAX) currently has a female-desire drug in late-stage trials called LibiGel.

There are some options out there for women to treat these various issues, but the variety of treatments and safe therapies for the majority of uniquely female diseases is beyond lacking. Take menopause, for example. For years, women have been treated with hormone-replacement therapy, despite the vast toxicity issues that have cropped up with the therapy. Yet, menopausal women don't have many other FDA-approved alternatives.

But the market potential should be more than enough to get the pharmaceutical industry focusing on this under-served population. In 2005, the women's health market was worth $21.9 billion as a whole; a drug that treats hot flashes alone could have the market potential of $2 billion to $3 billion in sales.

Some companies have already jumped on the women's-health bandwagon. Merck (MRK) has been selling the HPV vaccine Gardasil since 2006, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has also recently entered the market with a similar vaccine called Cervarix. The injections help prevent the virus that causes cervical cancer.

Abbott Laboratories
(ABT) announced on Wednesday that it's signed a marketing agreement with Neurocrine Biosciences (NBIX) for an endometriosis-related pain treatment called elagolix in a deal that could be worth as much as $575 million. Endometriosis -- which often causes infertility and can be very painful -- is a debilitating medical condition in which pieces of the uterine lining grow outside of the womb.

Pharmaceutical companies aren't the only ones interested in women's health; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced last week that it's pledging $1.5 billion in a joint initiative with the United Nations to improve the health of women and children. "The women and children are always last in line for health issues," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Reuters. "It's just morally unacceptable ... This is a real human rights issue."

If you're an investor who wants to bet on the success of the women's-health initiative, you could try putting your money into Teva Pharmaceuticals (TEVA). Aside from being one of the world's largest generic drug makers, the company manufactures several birth control pills as well as the Plan B morning-after pill.
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