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Hep C Drug Panic! Pharmasset Stumble Ripples Through Sector

Stocks in this article: GILD VRUS INHX VRTX IDIX

"In our view, it is important to note that PSI-938 has a different active species (2-fluoro guanosine triphosphate) than INX-189 (2-methyl guanosine triphosphate) and that the compounds are not similar outside of the guanosine base - looking at the compounds as a whole, we believe INX-189 is more structurally similar to PSI-7977 than PSI-938. We also note that there are guanosine drugs marketed such as acyclovir, and therefore we do not believe that guanosine is the reason for the PSI-938 toxicity."

Deutstch Bank analyst Robyn Karnauskas held a call for clients Friday morning with an Inhibitex executive and a medicinal chemist who has worked on INX-189 and is familiar with other hepatitis C drugs.

On the call, Inhibitex re-affirmed the absence of liver-related toxicity in clinical studies of INX-189 to date at doses up to 100 mg. In one ongoing study, four patients treated with 100 mg of INX-189 have gone through 10 weeks of treatments, with two of those patients completing treatment.

Not all are convinced that INX-189 is in the clear.

"If you compare the activated forms of each (which happens pretty fast) the 2 structures are much much closer: specifically, varying only in that 938 has a F at C-2' in and 189 has a OH (F is a chemical isostere of OH)...The 938 result does not necessarily mean the same will hold for 189, but as I see it, it increases odds," said one buy-side analyst, referring to a side-by-side diagram of the chemical structures of INX-198 and PSI-939. This analyst had a short position in Inhibitex and was using Friday's slide to partially cover.

Idenix Pharmaceuticals is developing hepatitis C drugs in the same class as Inhibitex and Pharmasset, so naturally, shares were down 10% to $7 Friday.

Perhaps, the only people chuckling Friday were executives at Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX), which was supposed to be a hepatitis C also ran due to the looming entrant of drugs like those from Pharmasset and Inhibitex. Perhaps Vertex isn't out of the hepatitis C game quite yet. Vertex shares were up 5% to $33.20.

--Written by Adam Feuerstein in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Adam Feuerstein.

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Adam Feuerstein writes regularly for TheStreet. In keeping with company editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Feuerstein appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.
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