It's a familiar story. A small biotech gets really good news about a promising drug. A big drugmaker with deep pockets is looking for a way to fuel growth. The big drugmaker thinks the small biotech's drug is a good fit with its own lineup and acquires the small biotech. And investors who owned shares of said small biotech make a boatload of money.
If you're the kind of investor who looks for biotech stocks that are likely to have this story play out, there's one stock that I think ranks at the top of the list. In my view, there's no more ideal buyout candidate right now than Amarin (NASDAQ:AMRN).
Amarin's really great news
A little over a year ago, Amarin announced overwhelming positive results from its big cardiovascular outcomes study of Vascepa. Those initial results were stunning. Patients taking Vascepa experienced a 20% less chance of cardiovascular death, 31% fewer heart attacks, and 28% fewer strokes. Overall, the drug helped reduce cardiovascular risk by 25%.
But earlier this year, some questions were raised about Amarin's data for Vascepa. There were concerns that the results were skewed because the company used mineral oil as a placebo. Some patients on placebo in Amarin's cardiovascular outcomes study experienced an increase in bad cholesterol levels. The issue was that this could have made Vascepa's performance compared to a placebo look better than it should have been.
However, those concerns have now evaporated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) performed analyses to try to determine whether mineral oil impacted the positive results from Amarin's study of Vascepa, but the FDA's findings were "inconclusive."
With the mineral oil issue out of the way, the FDA's Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee voted unanimously last week to recommend approval of a label expansion for Vascepa to indicate that the drug reduces cardiovascular risk. Although the FDA doesn't have to go along with an advisory committee's recommendation, it usually does so.
Calling big pharma
Amarin seems very likely to secure the much-anticipated label expansion for Vascepa. And this new label is expected to drive the drug to peak annual sales topping $3 billion and perhaps more than $4 billion.
With Vascepa holding the potential to significantly reduce cardiovascular risk, it would be a great addition to the portfolios of big pharma companies that already have an established cardiovascular sales team. Amarin should be especially appealing to big drugmakers that are looking to spur growth. For these reasons, I think that Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) looks like an ideal suitor to acquire Amarin, followed by Novartis (NYSE:NVS) and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE).
Amgen already markets cholesterol drug Repatha. The big biotech also has a promising experimental heart failure drug, omecantiv mecarbil, in late-stage testing. Vascepa would fit right in with both drugs.
An acquisition of Amarin should be no problem for Amgen. The company reported a cash stockpile of more than $20.8 billion at the end of September. Although Amgen plans to use some of its cash to buy immunology drug Otezla from Celgene, it would be able to easily finance a buyout of Amarin even at a significant premium to the smaller biotech's current share price.
Novartis's cardiovascular drugs on the market include Entresto, Diovan, and Exforge. The drugmaker is also evaluating TQJ230 in a late-stage clinical study for secondary prevention of cardiovascular events in patients with elevated levels of lipoprotein. Vascepa would be a strong addition to Novartis' lineup.
Novartis has more than $8.7 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments. That's not enough to buy Amarin, but the Swiss pharma company wouldn't break a sweat lining up financing deals to fund an acquisition of this size.
Then there's Pfizer. The big drugmaker has historically been a major player in the cardiovascular market with Lipitor. However, Lipitor will go with Upjohn to the new entity that will be created through the upcoming merger with Mylan. That will leave Pfizer with Vyndaquel, which treats heart disease caused by rare genetic disease transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis, but little else that could be classified in the cardiovascular therapeutic category. Pfizer could be on the lookout to bolster its lineup.
Like Novartis, Pfizer probably doesn't have enough cash to fully fund an acquisition of Amarin. But Pfizer does have more than $9 billion in its coffers and could practically snap its fingers and get enough money to make a bolt-on deal.
Buy in anticipation of a buyout?
Although I think that Amarin would make a great acquisition for Amgen, Novartis, or Pfizer, there's no guarantee that any buyout deal will be on the way. Buying Amarin stock solely on the hope that it could be acquired isn't a good move.
With Amarin's big run-up over the last couple of months, some might argue that the potential for Vascepa is already baked into the biotech's share price. I think that's partially true, but I still view Amarin as a good pick for investors whether or not an acquisition materializes.