Rebound still awaited for biotech stocksThat rebound...


Rebound still awaited for biotech stocks

That rebound in biotechnology stocks that some forecasters predicted last week never materialized -- even after positive news from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Chiron Corp.

Late last week, an FDA advisory panel recommended the agency approve a drug that slows the frequent attacks of certain types of multiple sclerosis. The recommendation wasn't unanimous, but a majority of the panel did find it would be useful to as many as 200,000 patients, according to the company.

During a two-year study, the drug increased from 15 percent to 30 percent the number of patients who escaped new or increased symptoms of the disease.

Chiron and Berlex Labs have applied to the FDA to market Betaseron, a genetically engineered form of beta interferon.

Beta interferon is the first pharmaceutical designed to stop the processes that cause the crippling effects of multiple sclerosis. Other drugs used to treat the disease relieve symptoms only. Women are twice as likely as men to have MS.

While Chiron's stock price stopped a weeklong slide -- it rose $1.50, to close at $51.50 yesterday -- analysts have not rushed to encourage investors to buy the stock. In fact, Smith Barney analyst Denise Gilbert says the stock is overvalued even if the FDA gives the drug final approval, according to Bloomberg Business News. She estimated the market for the product would be about $125 million to $150 million a year.

And yesterday, Dillon Read analysts cut their rating of Chiron from attractive to neutral, while Prudential analysts raised Chiron to a buy.

Biotech stock prices have fallen dramatically in the past two months. Why? Two companies announced poor results from drug tests. And investors began to fear that President Clinton's health care proposals will hurt biotech companies by containing revenues.

The biotech sector did not show any increase Friday or yesterday on Wall Street.

Univax's 2nd vaccine is tested on humans

Univax Biologics Inc. has begun preliminary human testing on its second vaccine, one that would reduce infection in kidney failure patients.

Because many of the 25,000 patients who need kidney dialysis are prone to get serious infections, Univax hopes to develop a vaccine that could be used to prevent those illnesses and to keep patients from being hospitalized.

The Rockville biotech company has worked with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to develop such a vaccine, which the NIH tested on 150 patients. Results from those preliminary tests showed that patients tolerated the vaccine and that their bodies developed antibodies.

The tests that have just begun are for a second-generation, proprietary vaccine that the company would like to market.

Legislature to ponder genetic privacy bills

Can an insurance company deny or cancel health coverage on someone who shows a genetic predisposition to develop cancer later in life or who has a gene for a fatal, inherited disease? Should your employer have access to your genetic history?

Such questions aren't being routinely asked today. But the social and ethical fallout from the explosion of information about genetic history will soon force those questions into everyday life.

To address these issues, three bills were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this session. They would prohibit discrimination by employers and insurance companies based on a person's genetic makeup and would protect the privacy of that information.

All three bills have been set aside for further study during the summer, which is the way the legislature usually handles bills it isn't ready to kill or pass.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes proposals to limit genetic testing.

Nematodes promoted to kill cockroaches

A tiny Palo Alto, Calif., biotech company thinks it has the answer to controlling cockroaches: nematodes. This would be a case of bugs fighting bugs.

The company, Biosys, wants to market a new type of pesticide, one that would be environmentally safe because the parasitic worm would enter the roach's body and release a toxin that would kill it. No chemicals would be used.

The company said it has developed a trap using the pesticide that will be introduced into the market by professional exterminators before it hits store shelves.

Cell Genesys seeks new antibody therapies

A group of Cell Genesys Inc. scientists has published findings describing development of a new technology that could be used to fight chronic illnesses.

The company said it has inserted large human genes into mice, a technique that would help researchers develop new antibody therapies, according to findings published last week in the journal Nature.

Until now, antibodies produced by mice and given to humans often triggered allergic responses. Cell Genesys researchers hope to produce a strain of genetically engineered mice that would produce human antibodies.

The company also said its new technology could be useful to scientists working on the Humane Genome Project, an international scientific effort aimed at identifying all human genes.

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