Biotech rivalries are sometimes a bit like boxing matches, where you have two lone fighters vying for the prize. But the hepatitis C market is turning into a battle royal that’s more wide open and unpredictable, with all the competitive maneuvering, surprise crashes, and comebacks you might expect from the Daytona 500.
The medical advances in hepatitis C have been dizzying this year, especially in what it means in terms of multi-billion dollar business implications. The safest thing to say is that there’s plenty of good news for patients this year, but that shareholders in the major hepatitis C drug developers had better hold on tight as a new standard of care gets established.
Some commentators figured that Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD), the world’s biggest maker of HIV drugs, had essentially locked up the dominant position in this new drug class through its $11 billion acquisition last month of Princeton, NJ-based Pharmasset (NASDAQ: VRUS). But it’s still too soon for anyone to declare victory over the wily and fast-mutating virus that causes hepatitis C. Given the way drug development is going now, it’s possible we could have dueling antiviral drug cocktails that cure almost 100 percent of patients within five years. And before we get there, we’re going to see some fascinating chess moves—and probably a few surprising collaborations—from companies like Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Merck, Roche, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Abbott Laboratories, as well as several smaller biotech startups like Alpharetta, GA-based Inhibitex (NASDAQ: INHX).
The Pharmasset compound that prompted Gilead to write such a big check, PSI-7977, is “certainly not a panacea, not the lone answer,” says Kleanthis Xanthopoulos, the CEO of San Diego-based Regulus Therapeutics, and the co-founder of another hepatitis C drug developer, Anadys Pharmaceuticals.
Xanthopoulos says Gilead was “taken to the cleaners,” and that the hepatitis C market is still up for grabs. “It’s going to take some time before people figure out how it plays out,” he says. The Pharmasset drug “is a powerful player, but you will need other direct-acting antivirals. You want to go to a 100 percent cure rate. I can guarantee the Pharmasset compound isn’t going to do it alone.”
Hepatitis C has never really captured big headlines in the U.S., as it has never benefitted from massive awareness boosting campaigns that have supported research for, say, HIV, or breast cancer. But hepatitis C has clearly emerged as one of the biggest opportunities in pharmaceuticals over the past few years. There are more than 3 million people in the U.S., and an estimated 170 million worldwide, with this liver infection that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Most people have never bothered to get treated, partly because the infection takes years to fully wreak havoc. The other reason is the standard of care with a combination of drugs—pegylated interferon alpha and ribavirin—causes flu-like symptoms that last for almost a year, and usually cures only 30-40 percent of patients. Essentially, most people figure the treatment is worse than the disease.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals changed the equation back in May. The company won FDA approval for a direct antiviral drug, a protease inhibitor called telaprevir (Incivek), that is added to the usual two-drug combo regimen. By adding the Vertex drug, researchers saw the cure rate boom to almost 80 percent of patients, while cutting the treatment time with the other drugs in half. The Vertex drug also significantly raised … Next Page »
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