A player in J&J's hep C cocktail helps hustle a quick cure

Gilead ($GILD) has already made a megablockbuster fortune out of its hepatitis C cure. But the race to cure patients faster (and probably cheaper) is still on. And Achillion ($ACHN) today posted some new data from small studies that show its NS5A inhibitor odalasvir (or ACH-3102) could feature prominently in one of the new cocktail therapies now in development at Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ).

The biotech assembled several different groups of patients who were primarily genotype 1 and put them through a variety of 6- and 8-week regimens that combined odalasvir and Gilead's Sovaldi and came up with a sustained cure (SVR12) for all of them.

The studies, though small, suggest that odalasvir has the potential to help cut the current standard treatment time in half, or perhaps even slightly more than half, which is particularly good news for J&J, which in-licensed Achillion's HCV portfolio back in May in a deal valued at $1.1 billion. The pharma giant also bought out Alios for $1.75 billion, gaining the nucleotide NS5B inhibitor AL-335, which can be added to a portfolio that also includes the NS3/4A protease inhibitor Olysio.

J&J currently has that triple combo in a Phase I pharmacokinetics study, while Gilead has been mixing and matching on its own to study 4- and 6-week regimens of Sovaldi with the experimental NS5A inhibitor GS-5816 and GS-9857, an NS3/4A protease inhibitor, with mixed results. Merck, meanwhile, is still working on a first approval for a combo of its own while AbbVie competes in the marketplace with a rival to Gilead's franchise players.

Achillion had long been one of the most frequently mentioned takeover targets in biotech, as big players like Gilead and J&J paid big to bring in new drug candidates. Its licensing deal was a let-down for many investors who were betting on another big takeout. But it's still a player in the game, with an experimental treatment which J&J will now manage in the clinic.

- here's the release