BARCELONA ( TheStreet) -- Wow, it's been a busy few days at the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) annual meeting in this beautiful Catalan capital. Investors obsessed with emerging hepatitis C therapies had plenty of new data to analyze.
Let me make one general observation about the future of hepatitis C treatment before I recap and grade each of the companies with a significant presence at the EASL meeting. Interferon -- the injectable immune system booster saddled with troublesome side effects -- is dead. The future of hepatitis C therapy belongs to interferon-free regimens. Physicians at the conference talked about interferon as if it were invented in medieval times. It's clear that any company seeking a role in hepatitis C going forward must develop or acquire an effective interferon-free regimen or face irrelevance.
Let's move to the winners and losers of EASL 2012.
Gilead Sciences (GILD):Grade: A- Gilead was the big story of the conference. The company emphatically reclaimed the driver's seat in HCV, at least for now, with a combination of solid scientific results and ruthless, strategic maneuvering. In a crowded Thursday session, anxious Wall Streeters awaited new data for Gilead's GS-7977, a once-daily nucleotide polymerase inhibitor, or "nuc." Despite impressive early data -- which prompted the undeniably expensive $11 billion Pharmasset acquisition -- subsequent results from a GS-7977 trial called ELECTRON showed the drug to have little effect in "null" responders and generated lots of investor anxiety. I was no exception. Despite my favorable disposition towards GS-7977, I wanted confirmation of the early data; most investors I spoke with shared my view. We got what we were looking for. An impressive 88% of treatment-naive patients in ELECTRON achieved sustained virologic response four weeks after stopping treatment (an early indication of "cure" known as SVR4) with 12 weeks of GS-7977 and ribavirin (RBV), a companion drug used in hepatitis C. Expectations leading into EASL were for an SVR4 of 70%. At the same time, Gilead issued a press release containing preliminary data from QUANTUM, an ongoing study in treatment-naive patients also using the GS-7977 plus ribavirin combination therapy. The SVR4 rate in this study was 59%, lower than ELECTRON due to enrollment of more difficult-to-treat patients.
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