Technology

Cancer Research Group Releases Data


To curtail data leaks that can affect drugmakers' stock prices, the American Society of Clinical Oncology discloses trial outcomes before its annual meeting

Studies of drugs that may stop the spread of many cancers—vaccines for brain tumors, treatments that prevent bone metastases, vitamins that may improve the chances of breast cancer patients—will be examined by some 30,000 oncologists and scientists at the world's biggest cancer-research meeting in Chicago, slated for May 30 to June 3.

But the very prospect of such medical breakthroughs makes any new information about those untried products or research projects highly sensitive, with the potential to move stock prices in the companies backing them. So the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) took an unprecedented move on May 15, releasing most of the 5,000 clinical trial outcomes that will be discussed at the meeting. The goal: to stem the steady leak of data ahead of the meeting, which has been a hallmark of the gathering for the past several years.

Because so many of the companies developing cancer drugs are small biotechs, ASCO data can have a dramatic effect on their stock. That's why in the past analysts and brokers invariably started calling friendly oncologists who received the abstracts a few weeks before the meeting, causing some extreme stock price gyrations. This year plenty of investors will be up all night combing through the data in an attempt to figure out which drugs will come out winners, or losers, at the ASCO meeting.

Parsing Abstracts

Already this week, ImClone Systems' (IMCL) stock slid more than 7% after Morgan Stanley (MS) analyst Steven Harr issued a report May 12 warning the results for Erbitux, which ImClone jointly markets with Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), would be disappointing in lung and colon cancer. The Erbitux data are expected to be highlights of the meeting, and among the few results that will not be released early because the studies will be featured in the meeting's plenary session.

But the efforts to parse this year's batch of ASCO abstracts may not prove all that fruitful this time. Dr. Mark Monane, who follows biotech for Needham & Co., points out that most of the abstracts were written in December, and the actual data presented at the meeting will likely be updates of those that appear in the abstracts. "The abstracts will help me to prepare, and to ask good questions, but I think you should wait for the fresh data before making investment decisions," Monane says.

ASCO itself gave a phone briefing May 15 on some of the more interesting abstracts, among them a study that found Eli Lilly's (LLY) Alimta might be effective in patients with advanced lung cancer. Those patients currently have few options. Alimta won Food & Drug Administration approval four years ago for mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the membranes covering most internal organs, usually caused by asbestos exposure. Scientists discovered the drug doubled the length of time lung-cancer victims lived without their tumor spreading, from two months to four months, which is considered significant in such sick patients. There were also indications the drug may increase survival, although further study needs to be done.

Bigger Presence for Big Pharma

Dr. Richard Schilsky of the University of Chicago, president-elect of ASCO, noted that most of the improvements in cancer treatment over the last 30 years have come from oncologists figuring out better or new ways to use chemotherapy and other drugs that were already available. In other words, it's not just the experimental drugs at ASCO that are exciting, although those are the ones that get the most attention from Wall Street. Studies of existing drugs can change the outlook for patients as much if not more.

In fact, some of the most closely followed data from the meeting will be for additional uses for already approved drugs. Clinical trials of Celgene's (CELG) Revlimid, Bayer (BAYG.DE) and Onyx Pharmaceutical's (ONXX) Nexavar, Novartis' (NVS) Zometa, and Genentech's (DNA) Avastin will all be closely watched at the meeting. On the experimental side, data on Avant Immunotherapeutics' (AVAN) vaccine for brain tumors interests investors, as does a melanoma drug developed by Medarex (MEDX) and Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ipilimumab, which has run into some delays.

Infinity Pharmaceuticals (INFI) and AstraZeneca (AZN) will be presenting positive data from an early trial of a novel drug called IPI-504, which inhibits a piece of the cell's cancer-making machinery called a heat shock protein. Amgen (AMGN) will be presenting positive data on a new drug, Denosumab, which prevents cancer from spreading to the bones.

The ASCO meeting this year is notable for the huge number of studies of drugs developed by Big Pharma. Past ASCOs have been all about the biotechs, because large drug companies weren't that interested in cancer, a field with few successes and small markets. But the huge success of Novartis' Gleevec and Genentech's Herceptin and Avastin changed all that. This year Novartis products will be featured in some 170 presentations, and AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and Pfizer (PFE) will also have a big presence.

Arnst is a senior writer for BusinessWeek based in New York.

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