French biotech rapidly stuck on losing side of hep C revolution

French biotech Transgene has watched partnership prospects vanish for its experimental vaccine against hepatitis C over the past year, as all-oral regimens against the liver-damaging disease have quickly taken over as the future therapy of choice.

As a result, Transgene CEO Philippe Archinard sees no immediate partnership in store for the hep C candidate, TG4040, and is now holding out hope that the therapeutic vaccine could find work in markets such as China where the adoption of new pills for the disease might be slower than major markets in the West, he told Bloomberg. And his company, backed by the wealthy Merieux family, has shifted focus to an experimental vaccine for hepatitis B.

Transgene has developed the hep C vaccine for use with the standard injected therapy interferon, which causes flu-like symptoms that have kept many patients on the sidelines waiting for the new all-oral regimens that work quickly and could reduce adverse side effects. The field of interferon-free contenders moved quickly in a race to bring cures to the market, which is expected to explode with the expected arrival of the pills over the next several years.

Also on the losing side of the hep C battle is Biolex, which was developing a timed-release version of interferon before throwing in the towel last year after burning through $190 million on research.  

Gilead Sciences ($GILD), AbbVie ($ABBV) and others have led the charge with late-stage programs for all-oral combos against hep C, causing problems for companies such as Vertex ($VRTX) with treatments on the market that involve interferon therapy. Sales of Vertex's Incivek fell 51% to $222.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 as hep C patients waited for the newer pills.

Archinard understands that the time for interferon-based therapies for hep C is quickly ending.

"Given that the game is pretty much over for hepatitis C," the CEO told Bloomberg, "there are a lot of actors that want to position themselves on hepatitis B, where there is a huge medical need."

- check out Bloomberg's article

Special Report: Hep C pill race report 2012: Gilead, others rush toward pharma gold

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