Merck & Co., Inc. (MRK): New Sleeping Aid Could Be an Awakening for This Pharma Giant

Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)Sleep, or lack thereof, is a major problem for millions of individuals.

A recent review published online in the journal, The Lancet, found nearly a quarter of all adults are unhappy with their sleep patterns. Meanwhile, some 10% meet the criteria for full-fledged insomnia.

“Insomnia has traditionally been trivialized,” paper co-author Charles Morin, Ph.D., a sleep researcher and professor at the Universite Laval in Quesbe Citry told the Huffington Post. “Now that we know a little bit more about its long-term consequences, it’s getting a bit more attention.”

Insomnia has been elevated to a pressing health issue.

Indeed, the sleep disorder puts sufferers at a greater risk for depression, hypertension, diabetes, and a host of other ailments.

So, the word that a federal panel partly endorsed a proposed new sleep medicine from Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK) was enough to wake many people up. The drug giant is seeking Food and Drug Administration approval of “suvorexant,” a drug to treat sleeplessness. Moreover, it opens the door to potentially adding a new kind of drug to battle the ailment. Designed to block the action of chemicals in the brain called orexins, which help keep people awake, suvorexant works in a more natural manner than other treatments.

A new sleep aid would be welcomed

Several pharmaceutical companies are working on improved sleep-aid treatments. Many have also shelved potential products amid safety concerns.

The last big shift in the sleeping pill market was in 1993 with the launch of Sanofi SA (ADR) (NYSE:SNY)‘s  Ambien. The drug is said to have fewer side effects than older sleep aids, but Ambien has had its share of controversy.

Sleepwalking, sleep-eating, sleep-driving, falling, cooking and driving while asleep, and no memory of these activities when taking the drug are among concerns. Yet, Ambien continues to be a big money maker for Sanofi SA (ADR) (NYSE:SNY), bringing in roughly $2 billion annually in global sales.

The French pharmaceutical company has a wide range of other profitable products in its pipeline, ranging from treatments for cardiovascular diseases to diabetes to human vaccines. Strong year-over-year earnings, a healthy 3.41% dividend yield, and a nearly $145 billion market cap earned it a position in Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B).

In the non-prescription sleep aid category, there’s Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)‘s  Tylenol PM. This mild over-the-counter pain reliever works in as little as 15 minutes for some users. According to the product label, it’s safe for people aged 12 and over.

But, the medicine contains acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage when taken for extended periods and in high doses. Many can’t tolerate acetaminophen, limiting Tylenol PM’s reach. Moreover, Tylenol PM is not meant to be taken regularly.

Nonetheless, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) isn’t a company to yawn at.

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) recently reported vigorous sales of $17.5 billion in Q1 2013, an 8.5% increase year-over-year. The company noted Tylenol products were a “positive contributor” to results. The New Brunswick, NJ-based drug behemoth reaffirmed its full year guidance for earnings of $5.35-$5.45 a share.

Plus, J&J just announced an 8.5% increase in its quarterly dividend from $0.61 to $0.65 per share. The boost marks the 51st consecutive year of dividend increases.

From counting sheep to sound sleep

Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK) is counting on suvorexant’s approval and for the drug to increase revenue. In one trial, patients taking suvorexant reported falling asleep 25.7 minutes faster than usual and sleeping an hour longer. Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)’s aim is to offer a fresh option for patients with chronic insomnia who regularly need sleeping pills. Other sleep aids on the market, like Ambien, keep patients asleep for about two-thirds of the night. Suvorexant is said to provide a longer, more natural rest.

For decades, a series of sleep drugs have focused on “shutting down the whole brain in maybe a less natural way,” said Dr. Darryle Schoepp, Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)’s VP of neuroscience. According to Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK), patients who routinely need sleep aids will better tolerate suvorexant. Research shows patients taking suvorexant experienced normal sleep rhythm. Main side effects were headaches and morning drowsiness.

The U.S. market for sleep drugs was $1.85 billion in 2011, down 8% from the prior year, IMS health data shows. Although the number of prescriptions for sleep drug rose, growing generic competition attributed to the decline.

Suvorexant could wake up the slumbering industry and prove dreamy for Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK).

The article New Sleeping Aid Could Be an Awakening for This Pharma Giant originally appeared on and is written by Diane Alter.

Diane Alter has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Diane is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network — entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

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