From 3D printing to next-generation cancer killers, there are some medical innovations that could have an incredible impact on patients. Our Motley Fool analysts explain how these next-generation medical advances could reshape healthcare and why investors shouldn't ignore them.
Todd Campbell: It's not a coincidence that the word "healthcare" was mentioned 17 times during 3D Systems' (NYSE:DDD) third-quarter earnings conference call. The company has determined that healthcare could prove to be one of the biggest markets for 3D printing, and that has led to a string of healthcare-focused acquisitions.
In the past year, the company has acquired Medical Modeling, a company that provides virtual 3D surgical planning and printing; LayerWise, a medical and dental 3D company; and Simbionix, a 3D virtual reality and printing player. Thanks to its acquisitions, 3D Systems' third-quarter healthcare sales surged 121% to $37.4 million, but even after factoring out the impact of those deals, 3D Systems' healthcare sales still jumped 79%.
That's an impressive performance, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg. Healthcare is increasingly turning to 3D printing and visualization to plan complicated surgeries and create durable 3D printed medical and dental implants. Surgeons can print replicas of vital organs for pre-surgical training, companies can print implants for hip and knee surgeries, and dentists can print teeth that fit and look better. Another company, Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO), is even bioprinting liver and kidney tissue for drug research. Given the seemingly endless possibilities, investors shouldn't ignore the potential impact of 3D printing on healthcare.
Cheryl Swanson: Biosimilar drugs just passed a key test that could save the American healthcare system billions of dollars, according to The Wall Street Journal. Almost a decade after the first biosimilar gained approval in the EU, an advisory panel finally recommended the FDA approve the very first biosimilar drug for the U.S. market.
The drug is from Novartis AG (NYSE:NVS) and is a copy of Amgen's Neupogen cancer drug. While Novartis' drug is likely to be the first biosimilar commercially available in the U.S., it certainly won't be the last. There's a long line of copycats drugs behind it, and under provisions in the Affordable Care Act, a simplified pathway should hasten their approval.
But how do biosimilars present an opportunity for investors? Biosimilars offer around 30% lower pricing than branded biologics, and biologics are some of the most expensive drugs on the planet. Potential savings in the U.S. from just 11 biosimilars for the decade starting in 2014 could be as much as $250 billion. And with the global space generating about $1.2 billion in 2013 and a study forecasting the global market to expand at a CAGR of 28% over 2013-2018, these are clearly products of the future.
For investors who like pure plays, there's extremely high-risk small cap Epirus Biopharmaceuticals or Coherus Biosciences, a company with three biosimilars in development, one in phase 3 testing. If Coherus gets approval for its lead candidate, a copycat of Humira, this stock could take off. But that's a huge "if," so be forewarned.
Much safer plays include Big Kahuna Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), which has multiple biosimilars in development. Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB) is my favorite, however. Biogen made a big leap into biosimilars in a joint venture with Samsung.
Currently, several issues could put a damper on biosimilars in the short-term. But with so many blockbuster biologics falling off patent, the long-term payoff is likely to be huge.
George Budwell: Cancer treatment, in many ways, has barely improved since the advent of chemotherapy around half a century ago. In fact, we're still approving new drugs based on relatively minor increases in survival (in months, not years). And even the new class of cancer immunotherapies hitting the market, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo and Merck's Keytruda, haven't changed this sad fact.
The problem is that the root causes of cancer vary from person to person, making it literally impossible to design a single drug that's effective across a large group of patients.
That's why I think the next big thing in cancer care is undoubtedly going to be a personalized approach to treatment. Fortunately, the invention of so-called "next-generation sequencing technologies" is finally helping to turn this dream into reality.
Over the past three decades or so, researchers have been slowly unraveling the genetic basis for cancer. But the faster turnaround times and lower costs afforded by next-gen sequencing tech have kicked this effort into high gear. Put simply, this powerful new technology has allowed scientists to understand the genetic basis for cancer, and subsequently design diagnostic tests, at unprecedented rates lately.
Although it's still in the early days for personalized cancer care, the use of cancer diagnostics employing next-gen sequencing tech and targeted therapies such as Pfizer's Xalkori -- indicated for non-small-cell lung cancer patients with an abnormal anaplastic lymphoma kinase gene -- are already producing vastly superior results in the real world, compared with simply using standardized forms of chemotherapy.
That's why major plays in oncology such as Roche, Celgene, and Novartis have all taken a keen interest in next-gen sequencing tech, making it an important medical innovation to watch going forward.