Roche's All-Oral Hep C Therapy Could Be First, Not Best, to Reach Market

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Roche's ( RHHBY) purchase of Anadys ( ANDS) likely provides the third drug in what might be the first (but not necessarily best) all-oral, interferon-free therapy for hepatitis C to begin phase III studies.

Being first to market with an all-oral Hep C therapy is important to Roche because the company has a lot to lose by lagging behind. Roche sells Pegasys, the leading interferon used to treat hepatitis C today, with sales of 1.1 billion Swiss francs through the first nine months of the year. Roche executives aren't stupid; they look ahead a few years and see Pegasys sales going away, similar to the patent cliffs hitting other Big Pharma drug blockbusters.

If Roche wants to maintain or grow its Hep C franchise, it has to figure out a way to develop an all-oral (interferon-free) therapy -- and fast.

One way of doing this is by acquiring or partnering Hep C drugs others consider to be weak or non-competitive on their own. That description fits Anadys' lead drug setrobuvir, which for $230 million, Roche is acquiring at a relatively low price.

InterMune's ( ITMN) danoprevir, which Roche acquired last year, is also seen as a weak Hep C drug.

Roche could start relatively quickly a phase III study against Hep C that combines three oral drugs -- setrobuvir (from Anadys), RG7128 (partnered with Pharmasset) and Merck's ( MRK) currently approved Hep C drug Victrelis, predicts Brian Skorney, biotech analyst at Brean Murray, Carret & Co. Roche and Merck have already announced plans to collaborate on Hep C.

Another potential Roche all-oral regimen could include setrobuvir, RG7128 and danoprevir (acquired from InterMune).

These Roche triple combinations may require longer 24-week dosing (instead of faster 8 or 12 week dosing) and may not be as potent or effective as all-oral regimens being developed by Pharmasset and others, but Roche may figure that being first is more important than being best, adds Skorney.

In the interest of fairness, it's worth noting that Skorney had been bearish on Anadys going into today's Roche deal. He says he didn't think Roche would buy Anadys because he under-estimated the company's desire to move quickly to develop an all-oral Hep C therapy.

And to be even fairer, I'll admit to being just as skeptical and wrong about Anadys, which I had at the bottom of the list of Hep C drug players with a shot at being acquired. But then, Anadys' share price barely budged last week after the company announced new setrobuvir clinical data, so a lot of investors were looking askance at the drug.

Roche's move may force competitors to move faster, and that in turn, could bring more Hep C deals. The "independent" Hep C drug developers -- Pharmasset, Idenix Pharmaceuticals ( IDIX), Inhibitex ( INHX) and Achillion Pharmaceuticals ( ACHN) were all trading higher Monday morning.

Investors wait to see how Roche's competitors -- Merck ( MRK), Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ), Abbott Labs ( ABT) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ( BMY) -- will react, if at all.

For more on Hep C drug stocks, read 10 Hep C Stocks on Wall Street's Watch List.

In other Hep C developments making news on Monday:

Vertex Pharmaceuticals ( VRTX) Where art though Incivek scripts? Vertex share continue to be volatile (down 6% to $40.69 Monday) on news that Incivek total prescriptions rose just 1% for the week ended Oct. 7, according to the drug prescription data service IMS Health. This continues a trend of flattening growth for Vertex's all-important hepatitis C drug.

Presumably, IMS adjusted this week's Incivek scipt numbers to correct issues raised last week with the way mail order data are counted. IMS was supposed to issue an update or correction for the last two weeks of Incivek scripts on Monday morning, but nothing has been announced yet.

If the weekly obsession with Incivek scripts has you confused, then don’t even try to wrap your brain around a separate report from Wolters Kluwer (and IMS competitor) that shows Incivek total scripts growing 14% for the week ended Oct. 7.

If you believe Wolters Kluwer data, Incivek scripts are still growing at a healthy clip. If you're an IMS fan, Incivek script growth is flat.

Vertex reports third-quarter earnings on Oct. 27, so perhaps investors will get some clarity then.

--Written by Adam Feuerstein in Boston.

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

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