2009: Biotech’s Stealth Small Cap Rally

2009: Biotech’s Stealth Small Cap Rally

On the heels of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) logging its worst annual performance since 1931 and the NASDAQ Composite (COMP) having its worst year since inception in 1971, it may have seemed counter intuitive to provide a bullish outlook for the biotechnology industry in 2009.  Nonetheless, at the start of the year we provided a positive outlook for biotechnology, citing the sector’s defensive characteristics, favorable technical aspects, and improving fundamentals, such as the number of new product approvals, products in clinical trials and the brisk pace of industry consolidation and licensing transactions.

With 2009 officially on the books, it appears an appropriate time to review the sector’s performance along with some of the themes highlighted in our previous articles.

Big Versus Small

The twenty-member NYSE Arca Biotechnology Index (BTK) was up 46% in 2009, while the broader NASDAQ Biotech Index (NBI) was only up 16%, underperforming the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDU), S&P 500 (SPX), and NASDAQ Composite (COMP), which were up 19%, 24%, and 44%, respectively.  Why the huge discrepancy in returns between these two major biotechnology indices?  Unlike the equal-weighted NYSE Arca Biotechnology Index, the NASDAQ Biotech Index is market value-weighted, taking into account the total market capitalization of the companies it tracks and not just their share prices.  Accordingly, companies with the largest market capitalizations, or the greatest values, will have the highest weighting in the index.

During 2009, large capitalization biotechnology companies [greater than $10 billion] dramatically underperformed their smaller peers.  For example, Celgene Corporation (CELG) was essentially flat, Amgen, Inc. (AMGN) was down 2%, Gilead Sciences, Inc. (GILD) declined by 15%, and Genzyme Corporation (GENZ) dropped 26% [earning Henri Termeer the coveted Nance Trophy for worst biotech CEO of 2009 by TheStreet.com’s Adam Feuerstein].  Some of the reasons for this poor performance include concerns over generic competition and pipeline progress – ironically some of the same issues that have plagued big pharma.

Accordingly, the relative underperformance of large capitalization biotechnology companies in 2009 masked the fact that many smaller, innovative companies performed well, with 20 of the 125 companies comprising the NASDAQ Biotech Index producing triple-digit returns during the period.  In fact, two biotechnology companies were among the largest percentage gainers in the NASDAQ Composite with their staggering quadruple-digit returns: Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (VNDA) +2,150% and Human Genome Sciences, Inc. (HGSI) +1,342%.  See Table 1 for a list of the top ten gainers from the NASDAQ Biotech Index in 2009.

Table 1. Top ten gainers from NASDAQ Biotech Index (NBI) in 2009

Company Name Symbol 12/31/08 Close 12/31/09 Close % Change
Vanda Pharmaceuticals Inc. VNDA $0.500 $11.250 2,150%
Human Genome Sciences, Inc. HGSI $2.120 $30.580 1,342%
Targacept, Inc. TRGT $3.560 $20.900 487%
Dendreon Corporation DNDN $4.580 $26.280 474%
Hi-Tech Pharmacal Co., Inc. HITK $5.540 $28.050 406%
BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc. BCRX $1.370 $6.460 372%
Spectrum Pharmaceuticals, Inc. SPPI $1.490 $4.440 198%
Santarus, Inc. SNTS $1.570 $4.620 194%
Salix Pharmaceuticals, Ltd. SLXP $8.830 $25.390 188%
Impax Laboratories, Inc. IPXL $5.000 $13.610 172%


Oncology: Prostate Cancer Spotlight

Driven by positive Phase 3 results from Dendreon Corporation (DNDN) regarding its prostate cancer vaccine study, investors gravitated towards biotechnology companies working in the field of prostate cancer treatment as noted in our May 2009 article.  This enthusiasm only increased when Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) announced in May 2009 that it would acquire Cougar Biotechnology, Inc., a development stage company with an oral prostate cancer treatment being studied in two Phase 3 clinical trials, for approximately $1 billion.

While not a member of either major biotechnology index, shares of Oncogenex Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (OGXI) started the year around $3.00 and ended above $22 for a 643% return.  Oncogenex is developing OGX-011, which is designed to inhibit the production of clusterin, a protein that is associated with cancer treatment resistance, and has completed Phase 2 clinical trials in prostate, lung and breast cancer.  OGX-011 received Fast Track designation from the FDA for the treatment of progressive metastatic prostate cancer in combination with docetaxel.  Shares of Oncogenex had traded higher than $42 in August 2009, but the stock price declined following a license agreement with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA) for OGX-011 that apparently did not meet investor’s expectations.

Not all biotechnology companies working in the area of prostate cancer were as fortunate as Dendreon, Cougar, and Oncogenex.  Shares of GTx, Inc. (GTXI) were the second largest industry decliner for 2009 due to a complete response letter from the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] that cited clinical deficiencies regarding the company’s New Drug Application [NDA] for toremifene 80 mg to reduce fractures in men with prostate cancer receiving androgen deprivation therapy.  See Table 2 for a list of the top ten decliners from the NASDAQ Biotech Index in 2009.

Shareholder Activist Wins

In view of past major coups with MedImmune and ImClone, in August 2009 we reviewed Carl Icahn’s biotechnology holdings as reported in SEC filings and identified three companies that significantly underperformed the NASDAQ Biotechnology Index over the past five years, but with recent successful shareholder activist outcomes that could positively impact future performance.  In particular, we noted that Alexander Denner, who has served as Managing Director of entities affiliated with Carl Icahn and as a director of ImClone, had recently been elected as a director at each company.

During 2009, those three companies, Biogen Idec, Inc. (BIIB), Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (AMLN), and Enzon Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (ENZN) produced positive returns of 12%, 31% and 81%, respectively.  While Biogen Idec underperformed the sector, it notched the highest return among large capitalization biotechnology companies.

In other shareholder activist news, holders of Vanda Pharmaceuticals (VNDA) are likely pleased that the company’s Board of Directors spurned a request by Tang Capital Partners, LP to liquidate the company in February 2009.  Shares of Vanda were up 2,150% for the year [see Table 1] following FDA approval in May 2009 to market the company’s Fanapt™ [iloperidone], a novel antipsychotic for the acute treatment of adult patients with schizophrenia, and a subsequent marketing agreement for the product with Novartis AG (NVS).

CNS: Developments for Parkinson’s Disease

Vanda Pharmaceuticals wasn’t the only company working in the area of central nervous system [CNS] disorders to make news.  Shares of Impax Laboratories, Inc. (IPXL), which were trading around $7.50 at the time we published our August 2009 article titled “Treating Parkinson’s Disease: Investment Opportunities and Challenges,” continued to reach new 52-week highs and ended up 172% for the year [see Table 1].  Impax recently initiated the second of two Phase 3 studies designed to support marketing approval of its IPX066 product candidate for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.  IPX066 is an investigational extended release carbidopa-levodopa product intended to rapidly achieve and then sustain effective blood concentrations of levodopa, potentially improving clinical symptom management.

Gastrointestinal Disease: 3 Hits, 3 Misses

First, the good:

Both Salix Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SLXP) and Santarus, Inc. (SNTS) appear in the list of top ten biotechnology gainers for 2009 with triple-digit returns due to favorable regulatory progress reported during the year [see Table 1].  In September, Salix announced the successful outcome of two Phase 3 trials to evaluate the efficacy and safety of Xifaxan® [rifaximin] for the treatment of non-constipation irritable bowel syndrome.  Salix is planning an NDA submission for the first half of 2010.  In December, Santarus announced that the FDA approved the company’s New Drug Application [NDA] for its prescription tablet product for all of the indications being sought, including for the treatment of heartburn and other symptoms associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease.

While not a member of either major biotechnology index, shares of Soligenix, Inc. (SNGX.OB) increased 317% during 2009.  In January, the company reached agreement with the FDA on the design of a confirmatory, pivotal Phase 3 clinical trial evaluating its lead product orBec® for the treatment of acute gastrointestinal Graft-versus-Host Disease [GVHD].  The following month, Soligenix announced a potential $30 million North American partnership agreement with Sigma-Tau Pharmaceuticals for orBec and in October 2009 initiated patient enrollment in the confirmatory Phase 3 trial that is expected to complete with clinical data available in the first half of 2011.

Next, the bad:

As discussed in our December 2009 article “Graft Versus Host Disease: Failures and Future Opportunities,” Osiris Therapeutics, Inc. (OSIR) recently reported preliminary results from two Phase 3 trials evaluating its Prochymal product candidate for the treatment of acute GVHD.  Unfortunately, neither trial reached its primary endpoint, sending shares from $14 to a 52-week low of $5.35 by November 2009, earning the company a spot in the top ten decliners for the year [see Table 2].

The other two casualties working in the area of gastrointestinal disease and appearing in the top ten decliners for 2009 are:

  • Progenics Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (PGNX), which announced in October 2009 that the company regained worldwide rights to Relistor® [methylnaltrexone bromide] for the treatment of opioid-induced constipation from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.  Global net sales of Relistor for the third quarter of 2009 were a mere $3.3 million, as compared to $3.2 million in sales for the previous quarter.
  • In the absence of any negative clinical or regulatory news, NPS Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (NPSP) stated it remains on track to reach full patient enrollment before the end of the first quarter of 2010 for a confirmatory Phase 3 trial with Gattex™ (teduglutide), the company’s proprietary analog of naturally occurring human glucagon-like peptide 2 [GLP-2], for the treatment of short bowel syndrome [SBS].  NPS believes that positive results from the trial, expected to complete in October 2010 according to ClinicalTrials.gov, will enable the company to seek U.S. marketing approval for Gattex.

Table 2. Top ten decliners from NASDAQ Biotech Index (NBI) in 2009

Company Name Symbol 12/31/08 Close 12/31/09 Close % Change
Sequenom, Inc. SQNM $19.840 $4.140 -79%
GTx, Inc. GTXI $16.840 $4.200 -75%
MiddleBrook Pharmaceuticals, Inc. MBRK $1.500 $0.510 -66%
Idenix Pharmaceuticals, Inc. IDIX $5.790 $2.150 -63%
Osiris Therapeutics, Inc. OSIR $19.160 $7.140 -63%
Progenics Pharmaceuticals Inc. PGNX $10.310 $4.440 -57%
Questcor Pharmaceuticals, Inc. QCOR $9.310 $4.750 -49%
NPS Pharmaceuticals, Inc. NPSP $6.210 $3.400 -45%
Discovery Laboratories, Inc. DSCO $1.120 $0.628 -44%
The Medicines Company MDCO $14.730 $8.340 -43%


2010 Outlook

The capital markets remain turbulent and there may be casualties along the way among undercapitalized companies, but many of the biotechnology industry’s fundamentals, such as the number of products in clinical trials, new product approvals, profitable biotech companies and industry mergers & acquisitions remain favorable for 2010. Similar to 2009, small capitalization companies with clinical or regulatory catalysts should continue to outperform their larger industry peers in the year ahead.

What is your outlook for the biotechnology industry in 2010?  Take a moment to complete our survey, which is only ten questions long and will take just minutes to complete.  The results of this important survey along with our industry outlook will be communicated in early 2010 through a future article.  Take the survey now by clicking here.

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