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February 28, 2005
Well, no one's in any doubt about the main thing moving the biotech and pharma stocks today. Biogen/Idec and Elan shares got dragged through the streets and thrown into the river when they announced that they were pulling their multiple sclerosis drug, the weirdly-named Tysabri. (Here's the letter from the companies to physicians, in PDF format.)
In short, a small number of patients who where getting Tysabri along with another Biogen product (Avonex, aka beta-interferon) came down with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, fortunately also known as PML. It sounds bad, and it is. While multiple sclerosis is a disease characterized by autoimmune attack on the white myelin sheathes of nerve tissue, PML is characterized by rapid, severe demyelination - sort of a multiple sclerosis on fast-forward. It's associated with activation of JC polyomavirus, a relatively obscure agent that a majority of adults carry without showing any symptoms at all. Disruption of the immune system (along with some unknown activating event) can turn the virus loose.
All this comes as today's print edition of the Wall Street Journal had a writeup on Biogen/Idec as the best-returning stock of the last ten years. Last year's 80% gain on Tysabri optimism didn't hurt, and the rest of the article is full of glowing predictions of success which are now but fragile fossils. Even if the treatment makes it back to the market, I can't see how it can ever be what it was going to be.
Tysabri's a monoclonal antibody treatment, which is one reason I haven't talked about it much on this site. That's much more biological than chemical, and I've never worked in the antibody field. But the toxicity problems that have cropped up are going to be handled just like the ones that occur with small molecules. Withdrawing Tysabri voluntarily should help some. But all you have to do this evening is type the name into Google, and you'll see that the first batch of ambulance chasers is already on the case. "Free Case Evaluation for Side Effects Victims," they say. There will be more lawyers than victims, and not for the first time. It won't slow them down much.
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