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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) and Merck (MRK) 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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