Biotech Stock Lessons From 2013 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Confab

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The 2013 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is in the books. Here's what I learned:

Investor mood was bright, not unexpected given the biotech sector's relative outperformance in 2012. The conference failed to produce any headline-grabbing news and no major deals were announced (unlike last year) but that didn't seem to bother anyone.

Dig a bit deeper, as I did, and you definitely heard concerns about an inevitable correction in biotech stocks. No one was predicting when the sell off would occur, just that it was going to happen. Biotech short sellers believe the momentum of the past year is unsustainable, and quite frankly, absurd. Those investors who favor the long side agreed that a repeat of 2012 was unlikely but they also see the sector on healthier footing. A correction, when it happens, is an opportunity to buy quality biotech stocks at more attractive valuations.

Among the big-cap biotechs, Celgene ( CELG) emerged from J.P. Morgan as the big winner. The stock is already up 23% this year, outperforming Gilead Sciences ( GILD), Amgen ( AMGN) and Biogen Idec ( BIIB). While 2013 earnings guidance was in-line with Street expectations, Celgene offered for the first time 2017 guidance of $13-14 per share -- a big number and impressive growth for a company its size, if accurate. The Celgene growth story has traditionally revolved around the multiple myeloma drug Revlimid, but not so much for 2013, 2014 and beyond, with Pomalyst (pomalidomide), Abraxane and apremilast stepping up in big ways.

Gilead's hepatitis C drug pipeline is moving steadily toward phase III data later this quarter and regulatory filings in the second quarter. No surprises. An interesting tidbit from Gilead's breakout was management mulling a phase III study of its newly acquired (from YM BioSciences ( YMI)) myelofibrosis drug CYT387 pitted directly against Incyte's ( INCY) Jakafi.

"We're good at head-to-head comparison studies, said Gilead President John Mulligan.

I admire that "go big or go home" attitude. Let's hope we see a CYT387 vs. Incyte study started later this year. Meantime, during its breakout, Incyte executives trashed CYT387, calling the drug a weak competitor that's too far behind to matter. Sounded to me as if Incyte was running scared.

Onyx Pharmaceuticals ( ONXX): Impressive. The company really seems to be hitting its stride with the multiple myeloma drug Kyprolis.

The tale of two ultra-orphan drug launches: Aegerion Pharmaceuticals ( AEGR) is going to do well with Juxtapid in homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (HoFH). CEO Marc Beer's presentation was one of the best and most convincing I saw during my three days in San Francisco.

The same cannot be said for NPS Pharmaceuticals ( NPSP). Gattex is an important therapy for short bowel syndrome patients but too expensive at $295,000 per year. Payers are going to have problems with Gattex reimbursement, particularly since some patients may be taking the drug for months or even a year before finding out if it's helping or not.

Teva ( TEVA) embarrassed itself by filing a Citizen's Petition with the FDA against Biogen Idec's multiple sclerosis pill BG-12. If this is indicative of the business acumen of Teva's new management team, shareholders are in for a long and lousy year.

The FDA granted "breakthrough therapy" status to Vertex Pharmaceuticals' ( VRTX) cystic fibrosis drug Kalydeco as a monotherapy and in combination with VX-809. What does this designation mean? Vertex executives weren't quite sure but it's probably a good thing, or at least it should be. FDA has been talking up efforts to encourage and assist in the development and approval of drugs for rare, life-threatening diseases so you'd think the agency would be incentivized to make "breakthrough" status mean something important. Stay tuned.

Amarin ( AMRN) CEO Joe Zakrzewski said to expect the Vascepa launch at the end of January and asked investors not to expect boffo prescription numbers right out of the gate. In other words, the Vascepa launch is going to be slow. Looking ahead, Amarin faces questions about its ability to attract a Big Pharma partner for Vascepa in the expanded "Anchor" indication of high triglyceride patients. And, will FDA approve an expanded label for Vascepa without positive results from the ongoing cardiovascular outcomes trial? Given the recent failure of similar heart-safety outcomes studies -- i.e. Merck's ( MRK) Tredaptive -- it's not crazy to see FDA becoming more conservative.

Two companies which should have pre-announced fourth quarter revenue during their J.P. Morgan presentations but didn't, which is not a good sign: Vivus ( VVUS) and Spectrum Pharmaceuticals ( SPPI).

Vivus announced a near doubling of Qsymia prescriptions in December compared to November. Of course, if Vivus know the total number of Qsymia prescriptions for the fourth quarter, the company also knows how much revenue was generated from those Qsymia prescriptiosn. My guess is Vivus chose to publicize prescriptions totals while keeping sales hidden because the latter number is small and disappointing.

Likewise, Spectrum could have easily given us fourth-quarter revenue, including all-important Fusilev sales, like the company has done in the past when it had something to brag about. Monthly Fusilev third-party sales estimates have been in decline for the fourth quarter, however, which likely explains Spectrum's silence.

Two companies with interesting and potential lucrative drug pipelines that deserve another look, even from this skeptic: Isis Pharmaceuticals ( ISIS) and Sangamo BioSciences ( SGMO).

Alkermes ( ALKS) is a drug pipeline story in 2013. Who knew? Among several potential big products in the works is ALKS 5461 for major depressive disorder in a fully enrolled phase II study with results expected in the second quarter.

Orexigen Therapeutics ( OREX) has a stronger marketing partner for Contrave in Takeda than Arena Pharmaceuticals ( ARNA) has for Belviq in Eisai, which is expected to launch the weight-loss pill late in the third quarter or early in the second quarter. An approval decision from European regulators is expected in the first half of the year, although Arena's most ardent retail investor supporters (the Areniacs) expect European approval on Friday following the close of the January CHMP meeting.

Fifty-eight percent of patients in the Belviq registration trials failed to lose 5% or more of their baseline weight after 12 weeks of treatment, which is the stopping rule included in the drug's FDA label. During Arena's breakout session, Arena CEO Lief expressed his belief that real-world patients will be more compliant to Belviq treatment and lose more weight than what was observed in the clinical trials. Lief's assertion was met with a fair amount of skepticism because the norm is almost always the reverse -- study results are almost always better than what's observed once a drug is used in "real" patients.

Sarepta Therapeutics ( SRPT) CEO Chris Garabedian did a nice really nice job laying out the rationale for accelerated approval of eteplirsen in Duchenne muscular dystrophy. An FDA meeting to discuss the phase II data and request permission to file early is on the calendar for the first quarter, as expected.

We're still waiting on phase III study results from Celsion ( CLSN), Ziopharm ( ZIOP) and Keryx Pharmaceuticals ( KERX) -- all expected in the first quarter, or in Keryx's case, already overdue.

-- Reported by Adam Feuerstein in Boston.

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.

More from Stocks

Inside Carnival's Mind Blowing New Horizon Cruise Ship (Video)

Inside Carnival's Mind Blowing New Horizon Cruise Ship (Video)

Neel Kashkari: The Heart of Our Financial System Is More Radioactive Than Ever

Neel Kashkari: The Heart of Our Financial System Is More Radioactive Than Ever

Finding Stocks Right for You: Cramer's 'Mad Money' Recap (Friday 8/25/18)

Finding Stocks Right for You: Cramer's 'Mad Money' Recap (Friday 8/25/18)

Flashback Friday: Amazon, Chip Stocks, Memorial Day

Flashback Friday: Amazon, Chip Stocks, Memorial Day

Week Ahead: Wall Street Looks to Jobs Report as North Korea Meeting Less Certain

Week Ahead: Wall Street Looks to Jobs Report as North Korea Meeting Less Certain