I can always count on the Fool community to bubble up good investment ideas. There's been a gem of a discussion about nanobodies on our biotech board. I'd never even heard of nanobodies before one of my favorite posters, mansloth, brought them to my attention. I'm glad he did, because I think the technology is fascinating -- and it could change the future of biotechnology.
The technology landscape
I don't want to jump into nanobody talk just yet. First, some perspective, by way of a discussion of monoclonal antibodies. Anyone who follows biotechnology knows that monoclonals have been the hottest drug class of the past decade.
Companies like Genentech
Monoclonals are hot drugs because they work. They have the ability to zero in on their target and treat diseases more effectively than other types of drugs can. This is why drugs such as Avastin, Synagis, and Rituxan are blockbuster products. It's as simple as that.
"If something is too good to be true, it probably is." You're probably familiar with that saying, and, in a sense, that's the case with monoclonals -- the drugs are not without their share of problems. In some cases, they can have issues with triggering immune responses, which can limit their effectiveness.
The biggest concern with monoclonals is their cost. These drugs are expensive to produce -- the manufacturing plants alone cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. That's a big reason why biotech companies charge tens of thousands of dollars a year for treatment. Despite the effectiveness of this class of drugs, that cost is a real burden to patients and the health-care system.
Nanobodies: a disruptive technology
One of the main tenets of Rule Breaker investing is to find companies that change the way business is done in their industry. In the high-tech space, this often comes from innovative thinking that produces a superior technology -- which leads to industry dominance.
In the 1990s, monoclonal antibodies were the disruptive technology in biotech. In 2010 and beyond, the technological innovation could very well turn out to be nanobodies. Here's why.
Unlike monoclonals, which are very large and complex proteins, nanobodies are small and simple. It's like comparing the Titanic to a pontoon.
Nanobodies are tiny fragments of antibodies that retain the ability to seek out and bind to very specific targets. In essence, they retain much of the characteristics that make monoclonals such a good drug class. Nanobodies have a crucial advantage, though: They are much cheaper to manufacture because they are smaller and simpler proteins.
Nanobodies have another huge advantage over monoclonals in that their small size could allow them to function essentially as a small-molecule drug, tiny enough to fit in the crevices of proteins to exert a therapeutic effect. Monoclonals can't, because of their size.
Despite some theoretical competitive advantages, nanobodies are not a proven commodity. Right now, they are just an idea that could turn out to be an important advance or a huge flop. There's no way to know how they will play out until clinical trials are run and the nanobody drugs can be compared with the current treatments.
There's been enough progress made to put these clinical trials on the horizon, so this is not necessarily a technology that is 20 or more years from actually being useful. If the trials are successful, they could even hit the market much sooner than that.
One company to watch looks to be Ablynx, a private biotech company headquartered in Belgium. Ablynx has a drug-development collaboration with Procter & Gamble
The Rule Breaker philosophy
There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing it safe with investment dollars and sticking with established companies that have long track records of success. However, such an approach is likely to generate returns that are in line with the overall market. That's not our style in Motley Fool Rule Breakers.
We think we can beat the market -- by a wide margin, even -- by investing in innovative companies. Companies that do things like create a new type of drug (nanobodies, anyone?). We've done well so far. Almost a year after the launch of the Rule Breakers newsletter service, we've already opened up a lead of 9 percentage points over the S&P 500. Though a year is too short to be called a "track record" and our results will be volatile, we're happy with our progress so far, and we look forward to sharing these companies with you.
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