Healthcare investment conferences buzzing with chatter and activity Print E-mail
By M.E.Garza   
Friday, 13 January 2012 05:44
biotech tradingIf the news flow has been a bit slow for biotechs outside of the HCV space this week, some of it may have to do with the fact that a great number of companies and executives converged in the center of San Francisco for three of the busiest health care conferences we’ve seen in some time.

If the Sundance Film Festival is where the films industry gathers to see new films, make deals and shake hands, then San Francisco’s event is certainly where biotech/health care CEOs, industry executives and investors all gather to swap information, handshakes and pitch their companies. Certainly, there appeared to be much more activity and attendees at this year’s Biotech Showcase J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference and The OneMedForum—all of which took place simultaneously at three hotels downtown.

While the buzz from the recent multibillion dollar acquisition deal for Inhibitex (NASDAQ:INHX) was on people’s lips, some of the major investors in that deal told us that Canaccord analyst George Farmer (who reiterated his buy rating in December- prior to the acquisition’s announcement) had reportedly sent out a note saying that another Big Pharma was likely to try to out-bid Bristol Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) deal for the biotech. We don’t see anything on the wires about that, but thought it was an interesting bit that we kept hearing during the week.

While it’s impossible to be everywhere and try to see everyone, there were several companies which jumped out at some of us in attendance. We’ll certainly bring you in-depth coverage and news on those in the weeks and months ahead.

One company that really stood out to me, but that I won’t likely be covering more actively until they start trading in the U.S. is Acasti Pharma Inc. (TSX-V:APO.V). This firm is a subsidiary of Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc. (Nasdaq:NEPT) and is led by Dr. Harlan Waksal, the co-founder of ImClone. Waksal is a real evangelist for the company and quietly gets the entire room excited about what the future holds for Acasti’s promising platform’s potential.

Given what Waksal has accomplished in his career and his successful helming of the $6.5 billion buyout of ImClone by Eli Lilly, we get the sense that Waksal is not as concerned or eager about getting on everyone’s radar screens as he is about building a real company. He knows that good data is the true measure from which he will build Acasti into a multi-billion dollar firm whose drug platform aims to out-perform the best-known statins-- Lipitor®, Zocor® and Crestor® -- in providing the greatest effect on cholesterol levels. Waksal's message was very clear to conference attendees:  Acasti is on track with its Open Label Study and its Phase II Clinical Trial for its Pharma grade krill oil. Data from the Open Label Study is set to become available sometime this Spring and full data from the Clinical Trial should be available towards the end of this year.

Speaking of data, there was a definite buzz in the air about PROLOR Biotech (AMEX:PBTH) the small biotech which is utilizing patented technology to develop longer-acting, proprietary versions of already approved therapeutic proteins. Rumors about possible positive data had the stock quietly rising over the last two weeks, but given the buzz among some attendees, shares may be still be headed higher. We get the sense that there is some sniffing going on but Big Pharma players won’t jump until they see some data. With only about 28.37M of the firm’s 54.54M shares in the float, this could be one to at the very least watch list.

Speaking of waiting for data, shares of CEL-SCI (AMEX:CVM) may be trading 62.14 % below their 52-week highs, but some say the firm’s share price or valuation does not look like it belongs to a Phase III firm with a new drug aiming to become a standard of care. Could it be that the bashers have, once again, under estimated the firm’s recent accomplishments- including the faster than expected Phase III roll-out?

Some observers in San Francisco pointed out that in the fall, Teva Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq:TEVA) expanded their licensing deal with the firm to market Multikine in Croatia and Serbia. As you may recall, in 2008 CEL-SCI signed a licensing contract with Teva for an exclusive license to sell Multikine® (Leukocyte Interleukin, Injection)  in Israel and Turkey.  CEL-SCI has retained the key European and U.S. markets. The chatter here is that given the progress of the late stage clinical trial and some of the anecdotal feedback from doctors who are seeing real results from the investigational treatment with enrolled patients, Teva wanted to expand their territory and has already identified 3 additional clinical sites in Croatia at which the study will be run as well. 

Despite the fact that shares have been ignored by traders who are sitting on the sidelines waiting for future data milestones to be announced, the relationship between Teva and CEL-SCI appears to be going well and patients have already been enrolled in Israel.

If you're wondering why volume has been picking up, speculation this week was that TEVA likes the arrangement and that since they will continue to have ongoing knowledge of how the trial is going, things are on the right path. As you know, this is a key advantage since they can swoop in to purchase a promising technology before other Big Pharmas do. CEL-SCI’s 880-patient Phase 3 trial is the largest clinical study of head and neck cancer ever conducted and much to the chagrin of investors, it was years in the making.

Celldex Therapeutics, Inc (NASDAQ:CLDX) appears to have jumped on to the radar screen of many who attended the conferences this year. Many of the smart money buyers in the hallways told us they like the chances for success and the firm's science. In late December Celldex announced it had completed accrual of the EMERGE study, a randomized Phase IIb study evaluating CDX-011 (glembatumumab vedotin) in patients with previously treated metastatic or locally advanced breast cancer and that Company anticipates presenting results at an appropriate scientific conference in the first half of 2012. Chatter is that the results will be not only good, but "very good,because it (the drug) works!" Some of you may recall that last June, Celldex announced similar data and mature results from a Phase I/II study evaluating CDX-011 in advanced stage breast cancer patients at the 46th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Fellow Seeking Alpha contributor Stephen Simpson also thinks Celldex could be a major winner to come.

There are plenty of rumors, stories, interviews and chatter to report in the days ahead.

Look for more articles after we decompress and start to digest some of the notes from our notebooks. In the meantime, get ready for what promises to be a very active and exciting year in biotech. We saw, easily, four times the number of people and firms in attendance at this year’s conferences and the mood felt much better than it did last year at this time. We’ll certainly keep you posted.

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