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4 Platform Drugmakers to Invest In

By Brian Orelli, PhD – Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 12:17AM

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No special shoes required.

Platforms aren't just for acrobatic moves before splashing into the pool or '70s night at the disco. Drugmakers are using the same patented technology -- called a platform -- to develop several drugs. If the technology works, there's money to be made -- over and over again.

Longer-lasting -- times 3
Just like those guys who won't spit out their Stride gum, drugmakers love extended-release formulas of their drugs. Long-lasting versions usually have higher sales because patients prefer to take drugs less frequently. More importantly, the extended-release version can prolong the life cycle of the drug because patents on the extended-release technology often go beyond the patents on the active drug component.

Here are three to sink your teeth into:

Elan (NYSE:ELN) is most famous for the multiple sclerosis drug it sells with Biogen Idec, but it also has a nanocrystal technology that's used in five products, including Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE:JNJ) recently approved Invega Sustenna. The once-monthly drug for schizophrenia patients should help with compliance in a population that sometimes has trouble taking daily medication.

Alkermes (NASDAQ:ALKS) also has a partnership with Johnson & Johnson for long-lasting schizophrenia drug Risperdal Consta, but Johnson & Johnson recently dropped a program for the once-monthly drug. That leaves Alkermes' future squarely on the shoulders of Amylin Pharmaceuticals' and Eli Lilly's once-weekly Byetta, which is under review with the Food and Drug Administration.

Last up is Flamel Technologies (NASDAQ:FLML), which is considerably smaller than the first two and a bit of a wild card. GlaxoSmithKline has used Flamel's technology in one of its drugs, Coreg CR, but third-quarter royalty revenue was a puny $2.5 million -- or perhaps less, because it's thrown into "other revenues." The company is working on 20 or more projects and has named some of its partners -- Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Merck Serono, and Baxter, for instance -- but generally keeps its drug development under wraps. For instance, a recent announcement for an extension of a partnership with Pfizer said that they were working on making an extended-release formula of an "already-marketed therapeutic protein." With secret code like that, it's difficult to know what kind of royalties Flamel might get if the extended-release drug were approved.

A drug discovery machine
Antibody drugs like Abbott Labs' Humira and Genentech's Herceptin bind to proteins and inhibit their function. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:REGN) has a drug-discovery platform that allows it to develop several different human antibodies to be used as therapeutics.

The key to Regeneron's potential is the speed at which it can discover and test new antibodies using its VelocImmune technology. The company recently signed a drug discovery deal with sanofi-aventis with a goal of bringing four to five drugs per year into the clinic. Clearly not all will be successes, but that speed and volume should increase the companies' chance of hitting the drug-development lottery.

Be careful before diving in
There are certain advantages to investing in platform drugmakers, but don't let the allure of developing multiple drugs quickly blind you to reality: Drug development is still difficult and costly. Even one success doesn't guarantee that the platform will produce an investing lifetime supply of drugs.

Two years ago, I highlighted a few platform drugmakers to keep an eye on, including Abraxis Bioscience. The company already had one drug approved, Abraxane, which uses the company's nab (nanoparticle-albumin bound) technology that coats chemotherapy drugs with albumin protein to encourage tumor cells to bring the toxic drug inside themselves.

The nab technology clearly works for Abraxane, which has captured about a third of the metastatic breast cancer market from other taxanes on the market -- Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) Taxol and Sanofi's Taxotere. But the company hasn't brought another drug to market using the technology after getting Abraxane approved nearly five years ago. Abraxis has been busy trying to expand Abraxane into additional cancer types, but as a platform drugmaker, it has been quite a disappointment.

Platforms may raise up drugmakers' stock prices, but it gives them further to fall should the technology not work out.

Have a favorite platform drugmaker? Let us know in the comments section, below.

Elan is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick, Pfizer is an Inside Value selection, and Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor recommendation.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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