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Vertex upstaged by Bristol-Myers deal

SAN FRANCISCO -- This was supposed to be a victory lap for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. executives: their first appearance at the life sciences industry’s most important annual conclave since they won long-sought approval of their potential blockbuster drug to treat hepatitis C.

But the Vertex team, including its departing chief executive and his newly appointed successor, was partly upstaged by an announcement on the eve of the 30th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that giant drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. was entering the hepatitis C market.

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Bristol-Myers said it will spend $2.5 billion to buy Inhibitex Inc., which is developing a next-generation hepatitis C treatment that will compete with one being developed by Cambridge-based Vertex. Gilead Sciences Inc., which agreed last fall to purchase Pharmasset Inc. for $11 billion, is also targeting that market.

“These deals tell us there’s a lot of demand and need in (hepatitis C), and we’re very well positioned,” Jeffrey Leiden, who will take over Feb. 1 as Vertex chief executive, told stock analysts and reporters in a breakout session after his kickoff presentation to the J.P. Morgan conference. The event drew nearly 400 companies and more than 8,000 executives.

Leiden told his audience that more than 25,000 patients in the United States have started taking Incivek, the first Vertex-developed drug, since it won Food and Drug Administration approval last spring. That drug, which is used in combination with therapies already on the market, competes with another approved around the same time by rival Merck & Co.

While those two drugs are protease inhibitors, which prevent replication of the potentially fatal virus, the next generation of drugs are a different class called nucleosides, which don’t have to be combined with therapies that cause side effects for patients.

Vertex estimates that 170 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C, many of whom don’t know it. Only a small percentage have been treated.

The company last year applied for US and European approval of a second drug to treat the orphan disease cystic fibrosis. It is also developing treatments for influenza, rheumatoid arthritis, and other maladies.

New competition from Bristol-Myers “reiterates the value of having multiple shots on goal,” said outgoing Vertex chief executive Matthew Emmens.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.
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