Hepatitis C Drug Shares Rose After Favorable FDA Report

Apr 26, 2011, 15:04 by John Steele

A hepatitis C drug from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc cured more patients than previously reported, U.S. health reviewers said, boosting the approval chances for a pill expected to transform treatment of the liver-destroying disease that afflicts millions.

According to Reuters, Vertex shares rose 12 percent to their highest level in a decade after comments from Food and Drug Administration staff on Tuesday that analysts said favored the medicine's approval.

Shares of Merck, whose rival hepatitis C treatment also faces an FDA panel's review this week, rose 2.2 percent.

Both medicines are expected to reap more than $1 billion in sales if approved after demonstrating an ability to cure far more patients than current standard drugs, in some cases in half the time.

Like HIV drugs, the new drugs will be prescribed as part of a cocktail with the two older drugs to help lower viral levels.

"A drug like telaprevir does an amazing job clearing the virus, but there's a small portion that is just intrinsically less responsive and it's the job of the older drugs to clear up that mess that's left behind," said Dr. Camilla Graham, Vertex's vice president for global medical affairs.

According to the Associated Press, the current two-drug treatment for the virus cures only about 40 percent of people and causes side effects like nausea, fatigue and vomiting.

FDA scientists said 79 percent of first-time hepatitis C patients taking telaprevir and the older medicines were cured, compared to 46 percent of those taking the older medications alone, according to Vertex's studies. Among patients who had already been treated for hepatitis C once, 65 percent achieved a cure after taking telaprevir, compared with 17 percent of those taking the older medications.

In general, telaprevir's cure rates are higher than those seen with Merck's boceprevir. The two drugs are expected to compete in a multibillion dollar global market.