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Biotech Stock Mailbag: Hep C Stock Winners

Stocks in this article: VRUS VRTX MRK OPTR GILD INHX ACHN

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Trying to make sense of the rapidly changing field of hepatitis C drug research kicks off this week's Biotech Stock Mailbag.

Evan R. emails, "It looks like Pharmasset (VRUS) was the big winner at the hepatitis C conference. What's your take on hepatitis C stocks now?"

I could easily devote this entire Mailbag to hepatitis C because so much of the data presented at the just-wrapped European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) meeting has the potential to radically improve the way hepatitis C is treated. It's never a great time to be a Hep C patient, obviously, but the prospect for better, faster and more well-tolerated cures coming relatively soon should be a real source of hope and optimism.

Investors have a tougher challenge trying to pick a winning stock or two (or three of four) from among the many that are racing to bring these new Hep C drugs to market.

Case in point: The buzz at this week's EASL meeting was about new, all-oral multi-drug combinations for Hep C treatment that won't likely be ready for approval or sale for four or five years. The Hep C treatment landscape is evolving quickly and investors are jumping so far ahead that the looming April/May advisory panels and approval decision dates for new drugs from Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX - Get Report) and Merck (MRK - Get Report) seem like old news already.

It sounds incredibly weird to even conjure this thought, but from Wall Street's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately perspective, Vertex's telaprevir and Merck's boceprevir look a bit old in the tooth even before the two drugs are approved!

Pharmasset was the belle of the EASL ball after presenting early data (in a relatively small number of patients) demonstrating that two oral drugs -- PSI 7977 and PSI 938 -- could render the Hep C virus undetectable with no obvious signs of resistance or relapse. This still-experimental regimen is remarkable for the absence of interferon or ribavirin -- the former injected, the latter oral -- which make up the current standard of care for Hep C treatment.

A typical Hep C patient today is treated with interferon and ribavirin for one year, enduring side effects that include flu-like symptoms for a 40% to 50% chance of being cured.

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