Outlook: British Biotech

BRITISH BIOTECH never ceases to disappoint. Yesterday's admission that Marimastat, its star drug, is no better than standard treatments for pancreatic cancer, is another embarrassing chapter in a disaster-strewn history.

First there was the grand dream of creating a "New Glaxo", a whizzy pharmaceutical giant based on some unproven compounds. Then came the bitter tussle with Andrew Millar, its former chief scientist, who was sacked for examining clinical data on the company's leading products and blowing the whistle on overoptimistic statements. The corker of a row triggered two investigations by stock exchange authorities, a Parliamentary enquiry and a collapse in the share price. The faces around the boardroom table changed since then but the results have remained the same, witness yesterday's trial failure, which at least partially vindicates Dr Millar's actions.

The new men in charge claim that Marimastat can still work on other cancers and that there are nine other studies to prove it. Shareholders should be patient, they say, these are early days, give us another year. But this is asking a lot of investors who have seen the value of their shares plunge by almost 93 per cent over the past five years. After yesterday's events, there must be a serious question over the future of British Biotech.

The company has a strong balance sheet with cash of over pounds 100m. And it is only a couple of years since this company was the rising star in Britain's rapidly growing biotech sector. But given the dreadful track record and uncertain prospects perhaps the board should finally admit defeat.Would it not now be the honourable course to return the cash to the long-suffering investors and draw the curtains on this sorry tale?

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