Monday, June 23, 2008

Exanatide's convenience may not be enough in a tough Diabetes market place

Diabetes is a tough market to compete in for any company. Insulin is the standard therapy for most patients with severe Diabetes. It is a naturally occurring hormone and it exists as both short acting and long acting therapy. It requires close monitoring as it may have dangerous side effects. This is the hurdle that any product entering the market has to pass. The new product would have to be safer and more efficacious than insulin to get wide acceptance. One of the serious side effects of any potent therapy is the drop of blood sugar levels below safe levels or hypoglycemia. If a product is equally safe and efficacious, it will have a tough time beating Insulin unless it is more convenient. This is an over simplification of the many problems these patients face but it may be useful as a set of guiding principles when picking a stock.

In 2006 I suggested buying shares of Amylin Pharmaceuticals (AMLN) because I thought Byetta with its unique mechanism of action would result in a good alternative to insulin. Here is a link to that recommendation. The price then was around $40 a share. After three years on the market, the product has not helped the share price and the stock is trading today around $26. Some of this lack of performance could be the management's inability to turn a profit.

In June, Amylin announced widely anticipated results of its long acting version of Byetta called Exanatide. After one year of treatment, patients saw a significant drop in blood sugar levels and in weights. Analysts are applauding this result and despite heavy competition from Roche are recommending investing in Amylin at these levels.

When I began writing this article, I was tempted to recommend shares of Amylin at these levels based on the potential of Exanatide to be a multi billion dollar product. Also. the recent failures of inhaled version of insulin removed some potential competitive factors. However, given the risks of competition from other similar products and regulatory hurdles involved, I will hold off on recommending investing in AMLN unless it is done with speculative money. I have learned over the last few years that large institutional money flows into Biotechnology stocks only after uncertainties and risks are removed. Just because a stock is cheap does not mean it will move higher any time soon.

Another reason I am holding off on AMLN is the management factor. At some point, you just have to consider that great products are necessary but not sufficient in producing profits and therefore stock price gains. The promise of Byetta (whether imagined or real) never came to fruition. It is hard to identify the factor or factors that lead to these results, maybe the recommendations where made too early and could be filed under irrational exuberance. It is OK to try to hit home runs with stock picking if you realize that you will strike out a lot. Therefor, I recommend waiting until a winner emerges in this battle. By then, the results may be a single or a double but the higher probability of success would make it an investment grade decision instead of speculation,

Diabetes is a tough market!

Disclosure: Author does not have any long positions in AMLN.