What: Shares of Agenus (AGEN -3.07%), a small-cap biopharmaceutical company intent on unleashing patients' own immune systems to fight cancer, rocketed 43% higher in March, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
So what: Much of the gain can be attributed to the general biotech sell-off that hammered smaller biotechs without discrepancy earlier in the year. During a few days in February, cash on the company's books at the end of September equaled roughly three-quarters of the company's market cap. A glowing fourth-quarter earnings report provided a much-needed reminder that not all biotechs are cut from the same cloth.
I'd rate Agenus' cloth at parachute-grade. It ended 2015 with over $171 million in cash on its books. Potential collaboration revenue in the quarters ahead cloud its cash-burn rate, but management expects it won't require additional funding until the second half of next year at the earliest.
Now what: Its adjuvant -- a fancy immunology term for "booster" -- used in GlaxoSmithKline vaccines will provide a small revenue stream in the years ahead. Agenus wisely capitalized the first $100 million of that stream to end the year on solid financial footing.
Small but steady revenues from Glaxo-partnered vaccines are partially funding an ambitious slate of no less than half a dozen clinical-stage trials this year. A large part of Agenus' ambitions involve an expansive partnership with Incyte (INCY -0.52%) to discover, develop, and commercialize immunotherapies aimed at four disclosed targets and three new top-secret targets.
For such a small company, it has a lot to look forward to -- or worry about, depending on your point of view. After many years of raising equity, it has just one commercial-stage product -- the adjuvant in Glaxo's malaria vaccine.
However, The seven programs sprouting from the Incyte collaboration come in two flavors that could help Agenus stretch its available resources a bit further. Four are equal profit-loss shares, and three are entirely Incyte-funded, costing Agenus practically nothing up front but potentially leading to less reward should they succeed.
Granted, Incyte's pockets hardly seem deep enough at present to push all its Agenus-partnered programs through costly regulatory hoops. However, Incyte has a rapidly growing revenue stream from Jakafi, which recently won an important label expansion that's helped its annual revenue more than double over the past two years to above $754 million. A promising rheumatoid arthritis pill, currently under FDA review, could further pave the way for Incyte to speed Agenus-partnered programs along.
A more immediate catalyst, Agenus' wholly owned Prophage vaccine, is aimed at one of the deadliest malignancies -- glioblastoma. Two-year survival rates for this form of brain cancer are less than 25%, and the standard chemotherapy isn't terribly helpful.
Agenus' Prophage program involves creating an individualized vaccine from patients' surgically resected tumors. In open-label studies it's beaten the standard of care tremendously, especially in patients with less elevated levels of a specific protein. The company plans on beginning its first controlled, randomized study with Prophage in these patients later this year.
Surprising placebo-group performances have ruined many phase 3 studies. If Agenus' Prophage program can avoid a similar fate, this stock is set to soar even further than it did in March.