In the past few months, there has been a spate of at least superficial shareholder activism in the pharmaceuticals sector. The latest drugmaker to hear calls for change is tiny Trimeris (NASDAQ:TRMS).

In an SEC filing earlier this week, HealthCor management, which holds 15% of its outstanding shares, called for Trimeris to cut back on its research and development expenses and to explore selling the company.

The shareholder group says that Trimeris' approved HIV treatment, Fuzeon, and its more than $300 million in tax-loss carryforwards are strong assets,  but shareholders may not get to reap the free cash flow from them if Trimeris continues to ramp up R&D spending.

In the open letter, the group also makes the excellent point that it's unlikely that Fuzeon will ever face generic competition because it's a complex biologic drug rather than an easy-to-replicate, small-molecule compound. This means that, barring new competition in HIV/AIDS treatment, Fuzeon will generate revenue for Trimeris for years.

One stick in the eye is that several drugmakers, including Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and Schering-Plough (NYSE:SGP), are developing oral small-molecule drugs that would directly compete with Fuzeon. The competing drugs could be more attractive to patients because they are taken as a pill rather than injected, like Fuzeon.

Trimeris already tried to put itself up for sale last year, but with no luck. It remains to be seen whether this shareholder group is looking for short-term gains simply by calling for a sale and then benefiting from the run-up in the share price, or if it's a longer-term stakeholder. More than one-third of the investment group's shares (representing nearly 6% of Trimeris' outstanding shares) were purchased in the past week.  

Regardless of its motives, I love the extra scrutiny activist investors are applying to relatively young drug developers like Trimeris, CV Therapeutics (NASDAQ:CVTX), or PDL BioPharma (NASDAQ:PDLI).

Rather than reward shareholders who hold onto shares through the risky development process, many drugmakers have squandered cash on excessive R&D spending or other empire-building projects while trying to become the next Genzyme (NASDAQ:GENZ) or Genentech (NYSE:DNA). It isn't such a bad fate to be a small cash-flow machine, and if more drugmakers realized that, they'd likely have higher share prices.

CV Therapeutics and PDL BioPharma are Rule Breakers picks. For more Foolish commentary on the industry, take a look at our market-beating newsletter. Check out all our recommendations and get access to our message boards and exclusive content with a 30-day free trial.

Fool contributor Brian Lawler can be an activist photographer and doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.