AIDS Drug Outlook to Receive Top Billing at Big Doctor Conference

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Ick-Ack.

That's what will be moving biotech stocks up and down next week.

Ick-Ack is what biotech insiders call the 37th annual

Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy

, or ICAAC, being held in Toronto from Sunday to Thursday. (The ICAAC site is accessible at

www.asmusa.org.)

The most important debate at the conference will center around the future of AIDS drugs. Two camps are carrying on an argument about the best form of treatment. One camp believes in "hit hard and hit early," which means giving a triple combination of two reverse transcriptase inhibitors and one protease inhibitor (PI) to an HIV-positive patient early (a vague concept). The other camp is more cautious, contending that resistance will turn into a significant problem and that patients shouldn't be treated until they at least have symptoms. Both protease and reverse transcriptase are key enzymes that help HIV replicate. Investors are waiting to see whether the class of drugs is incurring resistance at a greater percentage than originally thought. (

TheStreet.com

highlighted the

emerging debate in July.)

As this debate goes on, shares of highflying

Agouron Pharmaceuticals

(AGPH)

are likely to be volatile.

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

,

Abbott Labs

(ABT) - Get Report

and

Hoffmann-La Roche

also sell PIs.

Glaxo Wellcome

(GLX)

, the AIDS powerhouse, is developing a PI in conjunction with

Vertex

(VRTX) - Get Report

.

Docs will also get more data on

Biochem Pharma's

(BCHE)

3TC, highlighted as a cornerstone of AIDS treatment in dozens of small studies in various combinations. A small biotech,

Triangle Pharmaceuticals

(VIRS)

, also has an early-stage AIDS drug that will begin to hit radar screens soon.

Merck, which sells the leading protease inhibitor, Crixivan, will introduce a second generation of its drug at the meeting. The drug should be launched in early 1998, according to analysts.

Crixivan hasn't grown as fast as it might have, as patients started to take Agouron's second-place Viracept first because the drug is far more convenient to take and may have advantages with regard to resistance. The new version is part of Merck's strategy to bolster its AIDS franchise. It can be taken twice a day and with food, unlike the currently marketed version, which is taken three times a day, strictly every eight hours, and without food, making life complicated for patients on the drug.

Also good for Merck will be data on the

DuPont-Merck

joint venture's non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor, code-numbered DMP-266. The current common regimens include plain nucleoside RTs, such as Glaxo's

AZT

and 3TC. The non-nucleosides may turn out to be more potent and have more convenient dosing than the current drugs, and thus could threaten Glaxo's position.

Also highlighted at ICAAC will be

Gilead Sciences

(GILD) - Get Report

. The biotech, which has run up a whopping 80% since early July, has important data at the conference on three drugs, two for AIDS and one for influenza. The later-stage AIDS drug, GS 840, appears to have a good resistance profile.

Scientists also will present the much-anticipated Phase II data on the influenza drug, which is being developed with Hoffmann-La Roche, on Wednesday. But the abstracts, and thus the analysts' notes, will be out on Monday.

Roche has news of its own at the meeting. It is going to launch its soft-gel verison of Saquinavir any week now. (See

TheStreet.com's

July 23 story.) That version is supposed to be absorbed better into the body. Data on smaller studies of the drug will be presented.

Also important to watch is

Magainin Pharmaceuticals

(MAGN)

. The biotech will present Phase III data from two trials, already announced as positive, for its anti-infection drug Cytolex for diabetic foot ulcers. Cytolex is a new type of antibiotic found in the skin of an African frog. Magainin, long a woeful biotech laggard, has finally started to move north, having added 30% since the beginning of February. It was trading Friday at 11 5/8.

Editor's Note: Biotech reporter Jesse Eisinger will provide coverage from ICAAC in Toronto next week.