Achillion Pharmaceuticals Inc. , the developer of hepatitis C treatments, makes bio news with renewed interest in the hepatitis drug market after setbacks by rival drugmakers.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. last week said it was abandoning an experimental hepatitis C pill it obtained through its February purchase of Inhibitex Inc. after one patient died and others were hospitalized while taking the drug in a study. This week, Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc. said U.S. regulators halted its study of a similar therapy, marking the second hold on clinical trials for the company this month.
With the market for new hepatitis C treatments projected to reach $20 billion by 2020 and Achillion facing no delays in two drugs under development, Piper Jaffray Cos. and William Blair & Co. say the $481 million company could gain fresh attention as a takeover candidate for Merck & Co. (MRK), Roche Holding AG andVertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. (VRTX) A suitor could pay a premium of as much as 79 percent to Achillion’s stock price and still acquire the New Haven, Connecticut-based company for less than its peak market value earlier this year, when takeovers and merger speculation spurred a surge in hepatitis C drugmakers’ shares.
“The frenzy has been taken out of the space, but I still think Achillion is very attractive” because its therapies have the potential to be the best of their type, Ted Tenthoff, a New York-based analyst for Piper Jaffray, said in a telephone interview. “We expect the wave of consolidation to continue. Achillion is clearly a target.”
Joe Truitt, Achillion’s chief commercial officer, said it wasn’t appropriate to comment on the company’s development plans, including the possibility of a takeover.
“We’ll make the best strategic options as they come to us, but for right now, we’re developing our drugs and getting them into combinations and making them available to patients,” Truitt said in a phone interview.
Today, shares of Achillion rose 1.8 percent to $6.75, after earlier reaching the highest since July 5.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause liver damage and is estimated to affect 180 million people worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health. Rising deaths among so-called baby boomers from the infection prompted U.S. health officials to declare in May that all of those born from 1946 to 1964 are at risk and should be tested.
Achillion is among several companies racing to develop hepatitis C cures that would replace the standard year-long injectable treatment that can cause flu-like symptoms.
There are four new classes of drugs under development to cure hepatitis C. Each work in different ways to stop the virus from replicating, and can be effective against one or several subtypes of the disease.
Drugmakers such as Abbott Laboratories (ABT), Achillion, Bristol- Myers, Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD), Merck and Vertex have been testing these therapies, either alone or together, with varying degrees of success. The promise of a market that Achillion Chief Executive Officer Michael Kishbauch estimates will grow to $20 billion by 2020 spurred at least three acquisitions since October.
The biggest deal was Gilead’s $10.8 billion acquisition of Pharmasset Inc., announced in November, which came a month after Roche agreed to buy Anadys Pharmaceuticals Inc. for about $230 million. Bristol-Myers followed in January by announcing its $2.5 billion purchase of Inhibitex.
Achillion’s Kishbauch said in November that the company was in “advanced discussions” with potential partners or acquirers. Its shares then reached a five-year high of $12.38 in February on takeover speculation before falling (ACHN) 46 percent since then as no deal materialized.
Now, with Bristol-Myers stopping development of the drug it bought from Inhibitex, and Idenix (IDIX) halting testing of a similar therapy, Achillion could attract a fresh look from companies seeking hepatitis treatments to use on their own or in combination with their existing therapies, said Liisa Bayko, a Chicago-based analyst with JMP Securities LLC.
Achillion is testing two types of drugs. By combining several classes of these new hepatitis C drugs, doctors may be able to limit the virus’ ability to infect, mimicking the strategy that a decade earlier helped turn HIV from a killer disease to a controlled one.
During the first quarter, Achillion will be reporting on how effective its two therapies work in combination. Good data could entice competitors to bid, Bayko said.
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