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Bristol-Myers Missing Hep C Data Raises Red Flags, May Boost Gilead, Idenix

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Since my return from the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) conference two weeks ago, I have been unable to get over the strange behavior of executives at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY - Get Report). As I discussed in my EASL wrap-up, investors should view with suspicion Bristol-Myers' complaints about Gilead Sciences' (GILD - Get Report) refusing to collaborate on a late-stage study of the hepatitis C drugs GS-7977 and daclatasvir partnership. Then there's Bristol-Myers' odd and prolonged silence about INX-189 -- the nucleoside polymerase inhibitor, or "nuc," acquired in the $2.5 billion Inhibitex deal.

I suspect something is wrong with Bristol-Myers' INX-189, which has since been renamed by the company as BMS-094. The red flags are popping up everywhere. If I'm right about Bristol-Myers being in trouble, Gilead's lead in the race to develop all-oral therapies for hepatitis C will expand and Idenix Pharmaceuticals' (IDIX) hepatitis C drugs become more attractive.

Let's examine the details:

1. New BMS-094 data should have been available by EASL. In mid-January, Bristol-Myers completed enrollment in a Phase II trial of BMS-094 in genotype 2/3 patients, an easier-to-treat subpopulation of hepatitis C. By the time the hepatitis C world gathered in Barcelona for EASL in April, Bristol-Myers likely had four-week and 12-week on-treatment viral response data from this study. These results will provide an important first look at BMS-094's efficacy and safety, yet Bristol-Myers said nothing about the data at EASL.

2. Bristol-Myers passed on a second chance to provide insight on BMS-094 during the company's first-quarter earnings conference call. At least 16 weeks have now passed since the study completed enrollment. By now, Bristol-Myers should have four-week sustained virologic response (SVR4) data, an early indication of cure.

Yet on its April 26 conference call, Bristol-Myers executives once again declined to provide a meaningful clinical update on BMS-094. Instead, Chief Scientific Officer Elliot Sigal spoke in generalities about the drug.

"We feel that there are multiple doses that are safe for human testing from 50 to 200 [mg]," said Sigal , referring to BMS-094. "We will be getting more experience with 200 [mg] throughout this year. We will have safety data on a range of doses of 50 to 100 [mg], which we will at least have internally and hopefully talk about towards the end of the year." [Emphasis mine.]

3. BMS-094 produces a toxic metabolite. At a scientific conference in 2010, Inhibitex presented preclinical data on the metabolic pathway for BMS-094, then known as INX-189. The first step in this metabolic pathway yields a byproduct called 1-naphthol, a chemical that is toxic to hepatocytes, or liver cells. (My source for the background data is a 1984 paper published in Biochemical Pharmacology.) To be fair, the clinical importance of 1-naphthol at BMS-094's potential clinical doses remains unclear. However, two other nucs in clinical development -- Gilead's GS-7977 and Idenix' IDX-184 -- do not produce 1-naphthol. As an investor, the presence of this toxic byproduct should be a big concern until proven otherwise.
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