Updated from 7:03 a.m. EST

It's never too early to ASCO.

I'm talking about the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The Super Bowl of cancer research meetings. The confab that biotech investors (and a certain online biotech columnist, ahem) love to obsess over.

The ASCO meeting doesn't kick off until May 31, but I'm all for early prep work. That's especially important this year, because ASCO, for the first time ever, will post the research abstracts for the meeting in advance online.

That means these abstracts, which will contain preliminary clinical data on scores of experimental cancer drugs, will be available to everyone at the same time. That's new and important.

So, let's start thinking about ASCO. First, I'll identify some of the stocks that may be deemed "hot" going into the meeting. Then, I'll get to the particulars of ASCO's new abstract distribution policy and why you need to circle May 15 on your calendar with a bright red marker.

Stocks to Watch

I consulted with the very capable folks at BioMedTracker to help me compile an early list of companies that are likely to present new clinical data at this year's ASCO meeting. This is a preliminary roster, subject to change, and of course there's no way to handicap whether the data to be presented will be good or bad.

But investors who like to dabble in cancer stocks should start thinking about the following:

  • ImClone Systems (IMCL): At this point, this is the most compelling story going into the ASCO meeting. There already is a lot of buzz about the Erbitux lung cancer study known as "Flex," and it will only grow louder as we get closer to ASCO.
  • ImClone's European partner Merck KGaA announced in September that the study met its primary endpoint; this means the drug, in combination with chemotherapy, extended the survival of newly treated lung cancer patients. The announcement was a total tease, of course, because we don't know the extent of the survival benefit. This is crucial data, as Erbitux will go up against Genentech's Avastin in the treatment of first-line lung cancer patients.

    Expect the presentation of the Flex data to be chosen by ASCO as a plenary session at the meeting. That means that ImClone will get the big room, in front of thousands of people. And that means lots of buzz.

  • Medarex Top-line results from the phase III study of ipilimumab in melanoma patients didn't look all that impressive, but the actual data will be presented at ASCO. Medarex officials claim that the efficacy of ipilimumab gets better with time, sort of like fine wine. We'll know for sure at the meeting.
  • Incyte (INCY): I'm considering this stock my super-early sleeper pick for ASCO 2008, on the basis of some whispers I'm picking up on the company's experimental drug INCB18424. Let's hope Incyte comes up with a shorter name for the drug by the time ASCO rolls around, but '424, as I'll call it, belongs to the JAK inhibitor class of drugs. That may not mean that much to anyone, but let's just say that it's a much-discussed target for a host of inflammatory diseases.
  • Incyte is conducting a phase I/II study of '424 in patients with myelofibrosis, a cancer-like condition that affects the bone marrow and stops the body from producing normal blood cells. It's this study that apparently has ASCO watchers paying attention.

  • Genentech: I know, it's boring to mention these guys in an ASCO preview story, because the company is always there with a big presence. Avastin, Avastin, Avastin. True enough, and this year will be no different.
  • The early headline this year is that we'll see the actual data from the positive AVADO trial of Avastin in first-line metastatic breast cancer patients. The fact that the FDA approved Avastin for these patients last month takes some of the surprise out of the ASCO data presentation, but it will still be important.

    My early ASCO list goes on, much too extensively to discuss completely here, but the roster also includes Exelixis ( EXEL), Genzyme and Immunogen ( IMGN).

    There's also Poniard Pharmaceuticals ( PARD), Rigel ( RIGL), GTX ( GTXI) and Array BioPharma ( ARRY). There will be more info on them as we get closer to the meeting.

    Fairness, Finally

    All right, let's talk about the new ASCO abstract distribution policy. I reported last October that ASCO decided to make a major change to its annual meeting policy by granting the public full access to the research abstracts in advance of the meeting.

    Previously, ASCO sent research abstracts to its members only, and that, naturally, led to all kinds of leaks. Those investors who were savvy or lucky enough to get access to this information were able to trade on the early data; those not so connected or fortunate had to stand by helplessly while biotech stocks gyrated on what seemed like no news.

    Bravo to ASCO for coming up with a more egalitarian policy this year, though it likely means that I won't be able to write fun stories like this or this.

    ASCO will post research abstracts to the annual meeting on its Web site on Thursday, May 15, at 9 p.m. EDT. The group assures me that it has beefed up its Web servers to deal with what should be high demand.

    This, of course, sets up what should be an interesting and volatile day of biotech sector trading the next day. Adding to the fun is that Friday, May 16, is the options expirations day for the month.

    Get some rest now. Come ASCO time, you'll need to be ready.


    Know What You Own: Companies like Genentech and ImClone operate in the biotech sector, and an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks this sector is Biotech HOLDRs ( BBH - Get Report). This ETF was recently trading at $169.04.

    The current top five stock holdings in Biotech HOLDRs are Genentech, Amgen ( AMGN - Get Report), Gilead Sciences ( GILD - Get Report), Biogen Idec ( BIIB - Get Report) and Genzyme.

    These stocks were recently trading at $78.84, $43.67, $48.16, $56.55 and $73.14 respectively. To stay up to date on the biotech sector, don't miss TheStreet.com's Biotech section.

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