Achillion Pharmaceuticals Inc., the developer of hepatitis C treatments that was passed over by potential acquirers in the last year, is poised to draw renewed interest after setbacks by rival drugmakers.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. last week said it was abandoning an experimental hepatitis C pill it obtained through its February purchase of Inhibitex Inc. after one patient died and others were hospitalized while taking the drug in a study. This week, Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc. said U.S. regulators halted its study of a similar therapy, marking the second hold on clinical trials for the company this month.
With the market for new hepatitis C treatments projected to reach $20 billion by 2020 and Achillion facing no delays in two drugs under development, Piper Jaffray Cos. and William Blair & Co. say the $481 million company could gain fresh attention as a takeover candidate for Merck & Co., Roche Holding AG and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. A suitor could pay a premium of as much as 79 percent to Achillion’s stock price and still acquire the New Haven, Connecticut-based company for less than its peak market value earlier this year, when takeovers and merger speculation spurred a surge in hepatitis C drugmakers’ shares.
“The frenzy has been taken out of the space, but I still think Achillion is very attractive” because its therapies have the potential to be the best of their type, Ted Tenthoff, a New York-based analyst for Piper Jaffray, said in a telephone interview. “We expect the wave of consolidation to continue. Achillion is clearly a target.”
Joe Truitt, Achillion’s chief commercial officer, said it wasn’t appropriate to comment on the company’s development plans, including the possibility of a takeover.
“We’ll make the best strategic options as they come to us, but for right now, we’re developing our drugs and getting them into combinations and making them available to patients,” Truitt said in a phone interview.
Today, shares of Achillion rose 1.8 percent to $6.75, after earlier reaching the highest since July 5.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause liver damage and is estimated to affect 180 million people worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health. Rising deaths among so-called baby boomers from the infection prompted U.S. health officials to declare in May that all of those born from 1946 to 1964 are at risk and should be tested.
Achillion is among several companies racing to develop hepatitis C cures that would replace the standard year-long injectable treatment that can cause flu-like symptoms.
There are four new classes of drugs under development to cure hepatitis C. Each work in different ways to stop the virus from replicating, and can be effective against one or several subtypes of the disease.
Drugmakers such as Abbott Laboratories, Achillion, Bristol-Myers, Gilead Sciences Inc., Merck and Vertex have been testing these therapies, either alone or together, with varying degrees of success. The promise of a market that Achillion Chief Executive Officer Michael Kishbauch estimates will grow to $20 billion by 2020 spurred at least three acquisitions since October.
The biggest deal was Gilead’s $10.8 billion acquisition of Pharmasset Inc., announced in November, which came a month after Roche agreed to buy Anadys Pharmaceuticals Inc. for about $230 million. Bristol-Myers followed in January by announcing its $2.5 billion purchase of Inhibitex.
Achillion’s Kishbauch said in November that the company was in “advanced discussions” with potential partners or acquirers. Its shares then reached a five-year high of $12.38 in February on takeover speculation before falling 46 percent since then as no deal materialized.
Now, with Bristol-Myers stopping development of the drug it bought from Inhibitex, and Idenix halting testing of a similar therapy, Achillion could attract a fresh look from companies seeking hepatitis treatments to use on their own or in combination with their existing therapies, said Liisa Bayko, a Chicago-based analyst with JMP Securities LLC.
Achillion is testing two types of drugs. By combining several classes of these new hepatitis C drugs, doctors may be able to limit the virus’ ability to infect, mimicking the strategy that a decade earlier helped turn HIV from a killer disease to a controlled one.
During the first quarter, Achillion will be reporting on how effective its two therapies work in combination. Good data could entice competitors to bid, Bayko said.
“By the first quarter of next year, we could be a very different company,” Achillion’s Truitt said. “If that combination data comes through, then we really have a commercially viable, competitive combination that will put everybody on notice.”
“We’re pretty optimistic for Achillion,” Bayko said in a phone interview. “They’ll be well-positioned to be a candidate to be taken out, because right now, there are very few options if you want to get involved in hep C, in terms of combinations that are more advanced that are still in clinical development.”
Bayko said that while she expects a suitor to wait for the data on the drugs before making an offer, Achillion still could fetch as much as $10 a share if a company bid for it now, 51 percent more than its closing price yesterday.
Piper Jaffray’s Tenthoff said Achillion could lure suitors such as Merck, Roche and Vertex as they seek to compete against Gilead, which is seen by analysts as having the most promising hepatitis C drug. Gilead is poised to start testing two of its therapies together in a single pill this year, putting it on track to request U.S. regulatory approval for the drug in 2014.
Ronald Rogers, a spokesman for Merck, said the company doesn’t comment on speculation when asked whether the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based drugmaker was interested in Achillion. Silvia Dobry, a spokeswoman for Basel, Switzerland-based Roche, also declined to comment, as did Megan Pace, a spokeswoman for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Vertex.
Even Gilead could seek to acquire Achillion as a way to remove a potential competitor and bolster its position, said Peter Kolchinsky, co-founder and general partner at RA Capital Management LLC, which oversees $300 million, including Achillion shares.
“Gilead could solidify its supremacy if it had Achillion’s drugs, each best in its respective class based on what we know so far,” Kolchinsky said in an interview. “Acquiring Achillion would also be a wise defensive move for Gilead, keeping it from falling into a competitor’s hands or from becoming an independent low-cost competitor.”
Cara Miller, a spokeswoman for Foster City, California-based Gilead, said the company doesn’t comment on market speculation.
Brian Skorney, an analyst with Brean Murray Carret & Co. in New York, says Achillion won’t be a takeover target soon because it has “a lot more to prove” with clinical data next year. Other companies that developed hepatitis C treatments like Pharmasset and Inhibitex proved their drugs were effective before they were bought, and the only remaining question about their products was safety, he said.
The safety problems that challenged the drug Bristol-Myers bought from Inhibitex and the regulatory holds that Idenix faces show how much risk is still left in the market for hepatitis C treatments, said Les Funtleyder, a fund manager focused on the health-care industry at New York-based Poliwogg.
“What’s that phrase, ‘Once burned, twice shy?’” Funtleyder said in a phone call. “If someone was to repeat what happened to Bristol, shareholders would start to ask questions about management’s judgment.”
Still, after the drop in Achillion’s stock this year, a buyer would be taking on the risk of the therapies potentially failing at a lower price tag.
During the past 12 months, acquirers that announced deals for biomedical companies paid 65 percent more than the target’s average 20-day stock price in transactions greater than $500 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A bidder for Achillion could offer a premium of as much 79 percent to yesterday’s stock price and still get the drugmaker for less than its record market value of $863 million in February.
The market for treating the viral infection is too big to be dominated by Gilead alone, so large drugmakers may have the appetite to acquire a company such as Idenix or Achillion once they produce sufficient data on the safety and effectiveness of their drugs, said Y. Katherine Xu, a New York-based analyst at William Blair. Kelly Barry, a spokeswoman for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Idenix, didn’t return a voicemail message and e-mail sent after business hours about whether the company has been approached by suitors.
“Both Idenix and Achillion, their strategy is to sell themselves,” Xu said. “Timeline-wise, these two used to be similar, but now Achillion may be a little bit ahead.”