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Idenix Seeks Partner for Hepatitis C Combination, CEO Says

Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc., the developer of an experimental hepatitis C drug, is in talks to find a partner to create a combination treatment to fight the virus, Chief Executive Officer Ron Renaud said.

“If we think about how we can be very competitive, it is going to be about combining our compound with others,” Renaud said in an interview at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. That will be “our whole strategy.”

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company finished the year with $118 million in cash, “enough to take us through to the end of this year,” Renaud said. There is a mid-year goal to find a partner for their drug, as part of a process of “evaluating paths forward,” he said.

The development of drug cocktails for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, “is a very good road map for what could happen in hepatitis C,” Renaud said. HIV treatment involves a “combination of compounds with different mechanisms of action and compensating resistance profiles that beat the disease.”

Renaud declined to comment on whether the company may be acquired as the result of other recent purchases in the hepatitis C field.

Idenix gained 13 percent to $14.42 at the close in New York. The shares have more than doubled since Jan. 7 when Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said it would pay about $2.5 billion in cash for Inhibitex, a rival in a possible $20 billion hepatitis C market. Pharmasset, the maker of another experimental treatment for the virus, agreed on Nov. 21 to be acquired by Gilead Sciences Inc. for $10.8 billion.

Safer Treatments

As many as 170 million people worldwide carry the hepatitis C virus, and current drugs, given through injection, can have side effects that make therapy difficult to endure. The new medicines are designed to be taken as pills, with a higher cure rate and fewer side effects.

On Jan. 9, Idenix reported that its lead drug candidate for hepatitis C, called IDX184, showed no serious side effects in patients after 28 days of treatment. Renaud said the company had submitted the data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and expects to hear whether restrictions on its trials are lifted within a month.

“We are certainly going to combine IDX184 with protease inhibitors, and maybe a NS5A inhibitor,” Renaud said yesterday, describing drugs that attack different checkpoints for the disease as it moved through the human body.

While people are “very excited about the prospects” of an Idenix takeover, at current trading levels, the “valuation is very rich for M&A,” said Brian Skorney, an analyst at Brean Murray Carret & Co in New York.

Skorney said IDX184 needs another potent drug to “cover for its weaknesses” and pointed toward Merck & Co., the second-largest U.S. drugmaker, as an ideal suitor with its experimental protease inhibitor, MK-5172. He said Johnson & Johnson, the world’s biggest health-care products company, also may have an interest because of its hepatitis C research program.

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