Vertex Enters New Hep C Collaborations With J&J, Glaxo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ( TheStreet) -- Vertex Pharmaceuticals ( VRTX) is pairing up with Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) and GlaxoSmithKline ( GSK) in separate collaborations that will study new all-oral combination therapies for hepatitis C, the companies said Thursday.

All three companies are trying to catch up with Gilead Sciences ( GILD) and Abbott ( ABT), which are well ahead in the race to develop all-oral hepatitis C therapies.

Both new collaborations involve Vertex's nucleotide "nuc" polymerase inhibitor VX-135, formerly known as ALS-2200.

VX-135 will be combined with J&J's protease inhibitor simeprevir with and without ribavirin for 12 weeks in treatment-naive, genotype 1 hepatitis C patients. The phase II study is expected to begin in early 2013.

In a separate phase II study, VX-135 will be combined with Glaxo's NS5A inhibitor GSK2336805 with and without ribavirin for 12 weeks in the same type of hepatitis C patients.

Vertex, J&J and Glaxo will pay the costs of the new trials equally by and the collaborations do not involve any up-front or milestone payments.

"We think is a good move for Vertex and should help quell concerns from some investors that the company wanted to prioritize Incivek combo regimens," writes ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum in an email to clients Thursday morning. Incivek is Vertex's currently approved hepatitis C drug but it must be taken three times a day in a combination regimen that includes the injected immune booster interferon.

Adds Schoenebaum: "Recall, however, that there is very little data available for VRTX's nuc VX-135 at this point -- thus development risk remains high. We include very little 'next generation' Hep C sales in our Vertex model and our thesis is mainly built around the 'combo' cystic fibrosis program."

--Written by Adam Feuerstein in Boston.

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