Investing Against Breast Cancer

Got a present for your mom yet? After all, it's Mother's Day this Sunday. If you don't -- or even if you do -- why not buy her a few shares of a company that could help save her life in the future?

Breast cancer affects a lot of women -- there are expected to be more than 192,000 new cases in the U.S. this year alone, according to the National Cancer Institute -- making it a potentially lucrative market for drug companies. Let's take a look at some of the treatments that might cure mom and make her some money, too.

Brute force
For less advanced cancers, surgery is often an option. While you could buy stock in companies that make the scalpels, a better choice might be breast-implant makers like Allergan or Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , which is now a major player after its recent acquisition of Mentor. The recession has hurt cosmetic sales of breast implants, but things should perk up and we should see some growth as the economy gets back on track.

The other option is starving the tumor of estrogen with a drug like tamoxifen or one of AstraZeneca's follow-ups, Faslodex and Arimidex. Because some breast cancer cells require estrogen to grow, blocking estrogen with these drugs can stop the growth of the tumor.

When the cancer has spread -- metastasized -- to other areas, the brute force method often requires chemotherapies such as Eli Lilly's (NYSE: LLY  ) Gemzar and Roche's Xeloda or sanofi-aventis' Taxotere. They're nasty chemicals with horrible side effects -- the drugs cause hair to fall out and make patients nauseous because they can kill any cell in the body that is growing, not just the tumor cells -- but they can get the job done.

Targeted for destruction
The high level of toxicity of non-specific chemotherapy treatments has led companies to develop targeted therapies. There are three main targeted therapies used to treat breast cancer. Unfortunately you can no longer directly buy shares in the company that makes two of the three, because Roche bought Genentech earlier this year.

Both Genentech's Herceptin and GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE: GSK  ) Tykerb are used to treat HER2-positive tumors. The drugs target HER2, a protein that promotes growth of the tumor and is often present at elevated levels in breast tumors. Wyeth (NYSE: WYE  ) is also developing a drug, neratinib, which targets the HER-2 pathway and has shown promising results in phase 2 trials.

The other targeted treatment for breast cancer, Roche's Avastin, works by blocking the growth of blood vessels that feed the tumor.

Up and coming
A search of ClinicalTrials.gov shows a whopping 2,415 interventional clinical trials for patients with breast cancer. That's good news for future sufferers -- even with a high attrition rate, something is bound to work -- but it means there's a lot of potential investments to wade through.

The least risky way to play potential treatments is probably to invest in companies with drugs that are already approved to treat other types of cancer. The fact that a drug works for one type of cancer doesn't guarantee that it'll work for breast cancer, but, if it fails, at least the company has some sales to fall back on.

Drug

Company

Other Cancers It's Approved for

Sutent

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  )

Kidney and gastrointestinal

Nexavar

Onyx Pharmaceuticals and Bayer

Liver and kidney

Afinitor

Novartis (NYSE: NVS  )

Kidney

There will be a test
If the thought of investing in drug companies and their binary events makes your stomach queasy, another way to be involved in the breast cancer market is to buy the test makers.

Breast cancer diagnosis is often done with a mammogram, so investing in companies like Hologic or General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) can get you exposure to the disease. But keep in mind that the breast imaging equipment is only a fraction of the companies' revenue.

After a diagnosis, there's still plenty of testing to do. Doctors need to test to see if the HER2 drugs will work using tests made by companies such as Monogram Biosciences, Genomic Health, and Life Technologies. There's also profiling tests, made by companies such as Clarient, which attempt to determine the likelihood of recurrence.

Be good to your mom
Making money off people's misery is sometimes a hard thing to do. But it's important to keep in mind that without investments, the treatments for this life-threatening disease would likely never be developed.

Go give your mom a call, tell her that you love her, and consider investing in a company that might one day help save her life.

Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor recommendation, while Glaxo is a former one. Novartis is a Global Gains pick. Try any of these Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. 

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy doesn't require Brian to wish his mother a happy Mother's Day, but of course he'll do it anyway.


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  • Report this Comment On May 09, 2009, at 7:45 AM, mbarnes01 wrote:

    So much of the pharma industry is focused on oncology and yet progress has been VERY slow. Then we start to see all the data coming out on vitamin D in cancer prevention and possibly a role in cancer treatment. The Canadian Cancer Society now recommends everyone takes vitamin D to prevent cancer. There are some good summaries of the data at www.vitaminD3world.com if you are interested. The question is what will happen to all these companies if vitamin D works as well as the data suggests. Many doctors are now screening their patients and correcting deficiency. Just about everyone has levels less than optimal due to our lifestyle and years of adivce that the sun is bad for us.

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