Gilead, Bristol Shine at EASL Conference

At the European Association for the Study of Liver Disease conference in Barcelona, Spain, several companies are vying to be the first to market with an oral hepatitis C drug, the spotlight has been now concentrated on just two: Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYS: BMY) and Gilead Sciences (NAS: GILD) .

In a joint venture, the two drug companies presented results that showed that a treatment regimen consisting of Gilead's GS-7977 and Bristol's daclatasvir given to patients with specific genotypes returned a startling success rate in Phase 2 studies: sustained viral response after four weeks (SVR 4) of 100% for genotype 1 patients, and 91% for genotypes 2 and 3. Gilead's drug is classified as a nucleotide inhibitor, while Bristol's is considered an NS5A replication complex inhibitor. Gilead is also testing GS-7977 with ribavirin, an older hepatitis C treatment drug, which netted an 88% SVR 4 with genotype 1 participants. The company noted that the patients in the latter study had a slightly more difficult treatment profile than in the former.

But it wasn't just a two-company show. Abbott Laboratories (NYS: ABT) reported its own hepatitis C findings at the conference, showing off results of its Pilot and Co-Pilot Phase 2 results, delivering an 82% cure rate after 36 weeks and a greater than 90% cure rate after 12 weeks, respectively. Pilot's cocktail consists of its own drugs, ABT-450 and ABT-072 in conjunction with ribavirin, while Co-Pilot was ABT-450, ABT-333, and ribavirin.

Other companies with hep C treatments under study include Achillion Pharmaceuticals (NAS: ACHN) , whose stock took a nearly 13% beating on the EASL announcement. Its own entry into the race, ACH-1625, currently in phase 2 trials, was given fast-track status in early January by the FDA, certainly a good sign for a company that currently has no approved drugs on the market. Vertex (NAS: VRTX) is another pharmaceutical company that could surely use a boost, as it has lost nearly 24% of its value over the past year. The company recently released phase 2 results indicating that 74% of those genotype 1 subjects also infected with HIV showed no hepatitis C infection after 12 weeks of its oral treatment, Incivek, which is a combination of its drug and ribavirin.

Fool's take
Time will tell whether the sustained viral response can be maintained over a longer period of time for the Gilead-Bristol drug, which would qualify it as a real cure. The study is only in phase 2, and it's notable that Gilead has not agreed to move on to phase 3, which may indicate its desire to substitute its own formulation for Bristol's daclatasvir. It certainly seems clear that Gilead is leading the charge toward the big prize: being the first drug company to bring to market an all-oral hepatitis C treatment that really works. There are other contenders for the prize, but at this point, my money would be on Gilead.

The atmosphere surrounding the EASL just shows how exciting the health-care sector can be for investors. If you'd like to know more about how innovation and cutting-edge technology spell profit and value for these companies and their investors, order our free report now.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorAmanda Alixowns no shares in the companies mentioned above.The Motley Fool owns shares of Abbott Laboratories.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Gilead Sciences. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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