Biotech shares get boost as trials progress

Celltech and Chiroscience, two of the UK's leading biotechnology groups, saw their shares jump yesterday after plans for late-stage clinical trials brought them closer to launching drugs in 1998.

Celltech saw its shares rise 12.5p to 500p on news of encouraging trial results for its treatment for blood and bone marrow cancer, which could provide an alternative to chemotherapy. The company, which is today expected to report its first-ever annual profits, said its partner, American Home Products, would move to the final stage of testing required before the drug can receive official approval, expected in late 1998.

Chiroscience announced that it had won approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to start clinical trials on its Levobupivicaine anaesthetic, which could give it clearance to market the drug from the middle of 1998 if all goes well. A programme of 15 phase III trials in the US and Europe has already begun. Chiroscience shares rose 11p to 329p.

The latest Celltech tests covered 36 US sufferers of acute myeloid leukaemia who had failed to respond to existing treatments. Two were said to have shown a complete response to the treatment, with all leukaemia cells eliminated from the blood and bone marrow and blood cell counts restored to normal. Three others responded partially. The main side-effects were the onset of fever and chills and two patients suffered from high blood pressure.

Peter Fellner, chief executive, said he was very gratified by the results. "We are very surprised we saw such a major response from these patients.... Our feeling is if we can get at patients who are not at death's door, ie people who have had a first round of treatment and relapsed, we have a much higher chance of effecting long-term remission."

Phase II/III studies will now start early next year in 10 centres in North America involving 50 patients. Celltech has upped its initial estimate of peak revenues of $100 to $150m to over $200m after the extension of the drug's use to longer-term chronic myeloid leukaemia, as well as the acute form of the disease.

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