StreetTalk: No Cure for Cancer? Wall Street Waits - and Hesitates

Investors remain cautious despite the encouraging buzz created by new cancer therapies. They opt for lower risk hot spots in the life sciences market.
Sep 01, 2005
Volume 18, Issue 9

Brian O'Connell
Ask a stock market trader about cancer drugs and, chances are, he'll shrug his shoulders and say something to the effect of "been there, done that, not much to show for it."

You can't blame him. As far as cancer drug company stocks go, traders look at them the same way they would look at a used car — sure it might have some promise, but who hasn't been burnt by a used car that performs in fits and starts?

So there is plenty of skepticism on Wall Street about companies that make cancer drugs.

Take pharma industry giant Pfizer. On a day (August 10, 2005 to be exact) when the company announces it is seeking regulatory approval for its self-proclaimed "revolutionary" new drug SU11248 (sunitinib malate or Sutent), which targets stomach and kidney cancers, you'd think the news would be greeted with white-hot enthusiasm in financial markets.

But if you thought that, you'd be wrong. Pfizer's stock barely budged; in fact it finished the day down 0.5 percent to $26.39.

So what, right? Plenty of stocks languish after big news from the company in question. But this time, market movers and shakers were actually interested in news of the new Pfizer drug, especially after Pfizer CEO Henry "Hank" McKinnell described it as "revolutionary" on a recent conference call to analysts and big-league investors.

The thinking prior to the call was that Pfizer might be on to something, after some early analyst reports suggested that Sutent could conceivably outsell similar drugs from Onyx Pharmaceuticals and Bayer (which applied for a patent on its new kidney cancer drug, sorafenib, in July 2005). Fueling some anticipation was the news that users of Novartis' Gleevic had failed to respond favorably to treatment. This after first round clinical trials that called Gleevic "effective." Sutent is an oral, multi-targeted cancer therapy that combines anti-angiogenic and anti-tumor activity to simultaneously stop the blood supply to and directly attack tumor cells. More than 2,000 patients have received Sutent as part of Pfizer's clinical trial program.

So let's go to the Pfizer spin machine, where the message is that Sutent will be a formidable force in the cancer drug marketplace. According to a release from the company, Pfizer is marketing Sutent as a treatment for malignant gastrointestinal stromal tumor and metastatic renal cell carcinoma among patients whose tumors do not respond to or do not tolerate standard treatment options.

So far, so good — and it gets a little better. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Sutent fast-track status because it may provide significant benefit over existing therapies for serious or life-threatening illnesses.

Pfizer says Sutent also is being studied alone and in combination with other medicines as a treatment for a number of other solid tumors including breast, lung, prostate, and colorectal cancers.

McKinnell was certainly, and unsurprisingly bullish on Pfizer's new cancer drug. "I would just add with Sutent," he said on the conference call, "we're seeing enormous excitement in oncology circles, which is a good leading indicator of the importance of this revolutionary new medicine."

He also said Sutent is one of the first in a new class of drugs that selectively targets multiple protein receptors, called receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs). Inhibition of these RTKs is believed to starve tumors of blood and nutrients needed for growth and simultaneously kill the cancer cells that comprise tumors.

Yet there's nary a scintilla of interest in the drug on Wall Street.

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