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New Hep C Data Impressive, but It's Not There Yet

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Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE: BMY  ) latest data on its current hepatitis C drugs explain why the pharma needed to purchase Inihibitex (Nasdaq: INHX  ) . A combination of its drugs -- daclatasvir and asunaprevir -- appears much better at treating patients that didn't respond to their initial treatment than Vertex Pharmaceuticals' (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) Incivek, but we're a long way off from an all-oral cure for those patients.

An impressive 90% of patients who didn't respond to their first treatment with ribavirin and PEG-interferon alfa -- Roche's Pegasys or Merck's PegIntron -- were essentially virus-free 24 weeks after their second treatment, which included those two drugs plus daclatasvir and asunaprevir. In Vertex's trial, only 32% of those so-called "null responders" achieved the same result when taking Incivek plus the two older drugs. Of course that's still better than just repeating the treatment, which resulted in just 5% of patients responding.

But the goal of hepatitis C drugmakers is to remove PEG-interferon altogether. The drug has some side effects that make it unpleasant to take. In null responders that took just daclatasvir and asunaprevir, only 36% of patients were cleared of the virus. Better than nothing -- Incivek can't even be used on its own -- but a far cry from an all-oral cure for null responders; not to mention that there were only 21 patients in the trial, so the drugs are a ways away from being on the market.

Will adding in Inhibitex's INX-189 help? Let's hope so. Bristol needs something to justify the $2.5 billion purchase. The company also has partnerships to test daclatasvir with Gilead Sciences' (Nasdaq: GILD  ) PSI-7977 and Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE: JNJ  ) TMC435, so there are other possibilities to get into whatever cocktail treatment becomes the all-oral standard of care.

Of course, null responders are only a small subset of the hepatitis C patients. And the group should be getting smaller since fewer treatment-naive patients fail their first treatment now that Incivek is available. But treating null responders is the Holy Grail of hepatitis C. Any combination that can treat them shouldn't have any problems treating the easier-to-treat treatment-naive patients.

Follow the hepatitis C drugmakers in their quest for an all-oral treatment by adding them to the Fool's Watchlist service. You can add them all by following this link or add them individually below.

And if you are looking for a fast-rising health care company that recently established a new standard of care in a large and growing market, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner has found a small medical-device stock we are so confident in that we are offering you a chance to Discover the Next Rule-Breaking Multibagger in our new special free report. It is only available for a limited time, so download your copy, for free, today!

Fool contributor Brian Orelli holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Johnson & Johnson, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Gilead Sciences. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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