Novartis' Zelmac work lands at Viagra agency

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Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. has tapped New York agency Cline, Davis & Mann to handle its Zelmac drug account, setting the stage for a marketing battle to treat a largely hush-hush, but pervasive condition: irritable bowel syndrome.

Zelmac received priority review status from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration earlier this month and should be on the market by fall. A direct-to-consumer effort is likely to follow, with physicians expected to be targeted first. Spending wasn't disclosed.

The DTC campaign will attempt to make commonplace the mild-sounding irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, as a way to discuss a somewhat mysterious condition marked by abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation that afflicts up to 20% of adults.

This summer, rival Glaxo Wellcome is expected to cast IBS as a common and easy-to-use term in its DTC effort for Lotronex. The Glaxo Wellcome product, which beat Zelmac to market when it received FDA approval in February, is handled by Jordan McGrath Case & Partners/Euro RSCG, New York.

STRONG STIGMAS

"There are some pretty strong stigmas attached to this stuff," a Novartis spokesman said. "People don't want to talk about their bowel movements. It's important that people get more comfortable communicating on these issues."

Cline Davis has some experience in using DTC to bring delicate conditions out of the closet. The agency handles Pfizer's Viagra, which used ex-senator/presidential candidate Bob Dole to promote the term erectile dysfunction-or ED-as a smoother way of characterizing impotence.

IBS is far more common in women than men, and Lotronex is only approved to treat diarrhea and abdominal pain in women. Zelmac is expected to concentrate on easing constipation.

It often takes years to diagnose IBS, and the problem is frequently viewed as more emotional than physical. Zelmac and Lotronex are the first treatments dedicated to IBS to become available.

"This [market is] where the anti-ulcer market was back in the '80s," the Novartis spokesman said, "when there was nothing."

With perhaps more than 40 million Americans enduring some form of the problem, the stakes are huge for Novartis and Glaxo.

"Both drugs have a significant sales opportunity in an untapped market," said Neil Sweig, an analyst with Ryan, Beck & Co.

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