What a difference a year makes. Last April, biotech stocks were buzzing as red-hot (and supposedly embargoed) research abstracts for the big cancer confab held by the American Society of Clinical Oncology were passed around Wall Street.

Biotech stocks bounced up and down as traders and fund managers -- privy to the early, inside scoop on what would be hot (and not) at the 2002 ASCO meeting -- made some money. It was a familiar-enough phenomenon to have its own label on Wall Street: the ASCO effect.

That game appears to be over. With one month to go before the 2003 Super Bowl of cancer meetings convenes in Chicago, there isn't an ASCO research abstract to be found. Sure, some rumors are making the rounds, but at nowhere near the velocity of years past. Biotech stocks have enjoyed a nice run of late, and you can be certain that investors are still placing ASCO bets, but not with the confidence and certainty of last year.

ASCO 2003 is being played with brand-new rules , and Wall Street is still trying to figure out how best to work the system.

This is, of course, what ASCO had in mind when the nonprofit medical research organization scuttled its time-honored, yet controversial, practice of distributing (privately) research abstracts to members one month before the start of its annual meeting. This year, the party bags -- complete with a telephone-book-sized stack of research abstracts -- aren't being handed out until attendees walk through the door of the convention hall.

Monday Madness

ASCO's meeting officially kicks off on Saturday morning, May 31. This gives sell-side analysts, buy-side fund managers (and reporters, like me) two days to furiously peruse about 2,000 research abstracts, attend presentations, talk to doctors, and look at data-filled posters -- all in an effort to figure out what will happen to biotech and drug stocks when the markets open for trading on Monday, June 2.

Can you envision the volatility on that day? It's going to be something!

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