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A Non-Earnings Boost for Vertex

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Apparently, the press-release distribution companies were offering a two-for-one special for biotechs yesterday. In addition to releasing earnings, both Dendreon (Nasdaq: DNDN  ) and Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) issued a separate press release. Dendreon's was a little depressing, announcing the closure of one of its plants. But Vertex had some good news to share.

The company's early-stage hepatitis C drug, ALS-2200, performed well in a phase 1 study. The highest dose produced a median 4.54 log10 decline in virus levels after seven days of treatment, which is pretty substantial. Half of the patients treated with that dose saw their virus levels drop below detectable levels.

Granted, only eight patients were given each dose of the drug, but the efficacy of hepatitis C drugs tends to translate well from early stage trials through late stages. The biggest worry at this point will be on the safety front, as the drug is tested in larger groups of patients.

The clinical-trial news overshadowed a rather poor performance by the biotech's current hepatitis C treatment, Incivek. The company sold $328 million worth of the drug in the second quarter, substantially lower than the $357 million sold in the first quarter.

The problem doesn't seem to be so much that Incivek is losing market share to Merck's (NYSE: MRK  ) Victrelis -- the drug still commands 70% to 75% of the market -- but that fewer patients are being prescribed hepatitis C drugs: They're either waiting for the next generation of drugs because hepatitis C isn't immediately life-threatening, or they're being given those drugs for free in clinical trials.

Investors can afford to ignore Incivek because the growth potential of Vertex isn't in its first-born hepatitis C child. Instead, the future of the space is a combination of hepatitis C drugs, and for Vertex to have one more option to create a combo with gives it a shot to compete with Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  ) , Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT  ) , which are all further along on the path to create an all oral hepatitis C treatment.

Yeah, I'd say that was worth a separate press release.

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli holds no position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Dendreon and Abbott Laboratories. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Gilead Sciences. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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