Are These Biotech Drug Launches Back on Track?

If the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference had rules like Fight Club, "The first rule of JPMorgan is: You talk about new information first" would top the list. As Celgene showed last year with comments about Abraxane in lung cancer, you want to get that information in a press release and into investors' heads before they hear it in the presentation.

With the annual health-care conference starting up next week, two biotechs announced preliminary fourth-quarter sales today.

"Modest" growth
(NAS: DNDN) soared today after posting 25% quarter-over-quarter increase in sales of its prostate cancer treatment Provenge. Management has been guiding for "modest" quarter-over-quarter increases and hinted that this quarter's growth would be lower than the 30% seen in the third quarter. Investors freaked, apparently expecting a much smaller increase than 25%.

Management is sticking with its essentially useless guidance of "modest" growth, but at least things are looking up. The number of infusion sites is growing, which is a good sign although not necessarily telling of the sales growth. Clearly, two new sites doing 10 infusions each is better than five new sites doing two each.

More importantly, the reimbursement times for doctors are going down, now below 30 days. The company blamed its inability to hit its initial sales guidance on the fact that doctors had to pay for the $93,000 treatment upfront before being reimbursed by Medicare or insurance companies. There should be a fairly rapid ramp up from "try a few patients and see how it goes" to more robust prescribing once doctors are confident that they'll be reimbursed timely.

One country, but we're really excited about it
(NAS: ITMN) didn't jump quite as much as Dendreon, but it was still up by double digits today after announcing sales of $2.7 million in the fourth quarter. That certainly isn't much, but its idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis treatment, Esbriet, is only sold in Germany at the moment.

At this point, it's not the absolute sales number that matters so much as the ramp. There were 172 patients taking Esbriet as part of the Named Patient Program. Those patients transferred to the commercial supply, and the company found another 440 patients that started the drug independent of the program.

InterMune plans to launch in the next four largest EU countries this year. France, Spain, and Italy will come in the second quarter, and the United Kingdom will follow in Oct. An EU-only blockbuster is probably out the question, but if InterMune can keep up the momentum, it'll have a nice little drug. And most importantly, the EU sales will foretell potential U.S. sales -- if InterMune can ever get it approved stateside.

Sticking with tradition
While it's become a new trend to release sales info the week before JPMorgan, there are still some traditionalists that release new information a few hours ahead of their presentations. I'd expect Celgene to follow that path; as far as I know, the company started the tradition of releasing preliminary fourth-quarter earnings at the meeting. For Celgene, waiting works well because it adds to the anticipation since everyone is expecting the earnings and guidance for this year. The company just needs to make sure it gets all the information it'll present into the press release.

A few more companies that it would be nice to hear preliminary sales figures from, either tomorrow or during the conference, but before their presentations:

  • Seattle Genetics (NAS: SGEN) had a solid third quarter -- $10 million after a mid-quarter approval -- but the first full quarter of sales will be telling about the ramp of its blood cancer drug Adcetris. Patients staying on the drug for an extended time could make it easier to ramp up, compared to a drug like Provenge, where a treatment takes only a month.

  • Alexion Pharmaceuticals' (NAS: ALXN) Soliris has been approved for years, but sales have been steadily growing -- up 44% year over year in the third quarter -- as the company adds more patients with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, a rare blood disorder. The drug was recently approved for another rare disease called atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, which should drive sales further. Alexion is guiding for at least $214 million in the fourth quarter, which it'll have to exceed for the stock to continue its nice little run.

  • Human Genome Sciences (NAS: HGSI) isn't calling all the shots for Benlysta -- it has a marketing partner GlaxoSmithKline -- so I wouldn't be surprised to see it keep mum about the sales of their lupus drug at JPMorgan. Whether we get the figures now or later in the month doesn't really matter. What's important is that we see an improvement over the pitiful launch thus far.

Have any companies you're looking forward to getting an update for at JPMorgan? Let us know in the comment box below.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorBrian Orelliholds no position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Dendreon.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of GlaxoSmithKline. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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