Partner Up or Get Passed Up

I can only imagine the conversation:

Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) : "Hey partner, we've got a new hepatitis C drug candidate from our acquisition of Inhibitex. Want to combine it with your drug?"

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) : "Sure, why not? Maybe it'll give us an edge against Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  ) , the front-runner in the quest for an all-oral hepatitis C treatment. But make sure you give it a really complicated name; INX-189 was too easy."

BMS: "Already done."

The duo expanded their partnership beyond combining BMS' daclatasvir with J&J's TMC435 to include a combination of TMC435 with BMS-986094, the compound formally known as INX-189. The companies also agreed that if daclatasvir and TMC435 work well in a phase 2 trial, they'll move it into a phase 3 trial.

The quest for an all-oral hepatitis C treatment to replace Merck's (NYSE: MRK  ) PegIntron and Roche's Pegasys, which have to be injected, will likely require multiple drugs from different drugmakers. Hepatitis C drugs come in different classes that disrupt the virus in different ways. A few companies -- Gilead and Roche, for instance -- seem to have a drug in enough categories to develop a cocktail on their own, but that assumes they have the best (or at least good enough) drugs to get a decent cure rate. The current standard of care that combines an injectable drug with Vertex Pharmaceuticals' (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) Incivek cures around 70% of patients, so any all-oral treatment would have to meet or exceed that.

Flying solo also poses a problem for timing. Gilead, for instance, is reportedly considering going it alone even though its GS-7977 works really well with Bristol's daclatasvir, as it has a drug of its own in the same class as daclatasvir. That choice will likely result in getting to the market slower.

Sure, combining drugs means sharing profits, but I think that's a good trade-off for the potential to be best in class and not let any other combination products pass you up.

Now if we can just get easy-to-remember trade names for all these drugs.

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, as well as creating a diagonal call position in Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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