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Hep C Update: Vertex, Merck and Gilead

Stocks in this article: VRTX MRK GILD IDIX JNJ VRUS

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Updates on hepatitis C stocks from a weekend at the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) annual meeting:

Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX): Telaprevir was the superior hepatitis C drug coming into AASLD and no data or information released over the weekend, including from Merck (MRK) and its competing drug boceprevir, changed that view.

If there's a debate left to have about telaprevir vs. boceprevir in hepatitis C, it's forecasting the market share each drug may garner once both are approved next year. Right now, the Street's consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of telaprevir (roughly 70-80%) to boceprevir's (20-30%). Analysts expect telaprevir sales in the range of $2.5 billion by the end of 2014.

Whether those estimate and market share splits change significantly or not could depend on feedback analysts and investors get from Hep C doctors attending AASLD after they get a chance to see full data presentations from the phase III studies of each drug Monday and Tuesday.

While we wait for those presentations, Vertex did issue a press release Saturday updating results from the two, previously announced phase III studies in treatment-naive hepatitis C patients.

As a reminder, in the phase III "Advance" study, 75% of patients treated with telaprevir plus the standard of care (long-acting interferon plus ribavirin) achieved a sustained viral response, which is essentially a cure. That compares to 44% of patients treated with standard of care alone. A second phase III study dubbed "Illuminate" confirmed that patients who respond well to telaprevir can be treated and cured in six months, half the time it normally takes to treat Hep C.

New data from the Advance study showed that 62% of African-Americans/Blacks were cured after treatment with telaprevir compared to 25% of African-American/Blacks treated with standard of care alone. This is significant because, historically, African American hepatitis C patients respond poorly to standard therapy.

Also from the Advance study, 62% of people with advance liver fibrosis or cirrhosis achieved a cure with telaprevir compared to 33% of similar patients treated with standard therapy.

Vertex also disclosed that 58% of telaprevir-treated patients in the Advance study and 65% of patients in the Illuminate study were able to cut total treatment time to 24 weeks from the 48 weeks of therapy normally needed to achieve a cure.

Merck: A press release Saturday updating results from two phase III studies of boceprevir contained a dizzying array of statistics but the overall profile of the drug -- not quite as good as telaprevir -- didn't change much.

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