Anthrax vaccine shows promise

Human Genome stock up 12.8% after announcement

March 19, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Shares of Human Genome Sciences Inc. rose nearly 13 percent yesterday after the Rockville company announced it has developed an antibody drug that protects against anthrax in multiple experimental models in animals.

Human Genome shares gained 92 cents, or 12.8 percent, to close at $8.10 on the Nasdaq stock market. Before yesterday, the shares had fallen 71 percent in the previous 12 months.

Human Genome said it plans to file soon with the Food and Drug Administration for permission to begin testing the medication, called ABthrax, in healthy adults.

The Rockville company hopes to win FDA approval of ABthrax under provisions of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The act allows the FDA to approve a drug for emergency use based on animal studies if safety in humans can be shown. Human Genome began searching for an anthrax antidote soon after five Americans died and as many as 18 were sickened in 2001 by letters contaminated with anthrax bacteria.

Human Genome officials hope to sell the treatment to government agencies and the military. A single dose of ABthrax worked immediately in rabbits and monkeys that inhaled anthrax bacteria spores, the company said.

ABthrax is an antibody that targets the toxins anthrax releases into the blood. Antibiotics kill the bacteria but don't work against the toxins, and may not work against some strains.

The only vaccine available must be given over several weeks to create immunity and requires several follow-up shots over an 18-month period.

Company officials declined to estimate Human Genome's potential profits from the drug.

"We haven't really even discussed price," said Craig A. Rosen, president of research and development at Human Genome. "That would be negotiations with the government on how much this would be. I think a lot of that would depend on use, how many doses they want to stockpile. It's always more efficient when you're making a drug to make a lot, and that could always reduce the price."

Jill Kiersky, a stock analyst with Morningstar, an independent research company based in Chicago, said it's too early to tell what impact the new drug could have for Human Genome Sciences.

"It's tricky, and it's so highly uncertain right now because it's just so completely dependent on whether we go to war, how long it lasts and what the chances are that we could have some kind of a biological attack," Kiersky said.

"They're targeting, probably, the virus that we're most likely to be attacked with, but because it's so uncertain what kind of population they would target, how many people it would impact, whether or not they would use it on soldiers abroad, all of those factors would influence the number of people that would be treated, and there's still this whole development process the drug has to go through. It's not even approved yet."

Kiersky also said financial gains for Human Genome might not last long.

"It probably would be a short-term impact, if anything," she said. "If they were able to generate some cash flows over the next 24 months or so, chances are slim that any improvement or bump in cash flows would extend beyond the next couple of years."

Human Genome's Rosen said researchers have been working on the drug for 14 to 16 months, since the anthrax scare after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The announcement was made as the United States nears a war against Iraq, but Rosen said the timing was coincidental.

He wouldn't comment on when the company could expect FDA approval.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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