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The Investment Column: Key trials on track for British Biotech

When British Biotech, the biggest hope in the UK's faltering biotech sector, announces results, investors want to hear only one thing: progress on marimastat, its cancer drug. In such a crestfallen sector the desire for a quantum leap forward in news is understandable. Yesterday's interims from British Bio could offer no fireworks, with losses pounds 4m deeper at pounds 20m, but did show that marimastat trials, the largest pre-registration cancer trials ever conducted, are on track and gaining serious weight.

In a massive study, marimastat is being tested on six different tumour types, in combination with cytotoxics and eventually on early stage cancers. Familiarising doctors with marimastat ahead of its registration and demonstrating its potential in as many cancers as possible could make this a billion- dollar seller. Doctors frequently prescribe trusted cancer drugs more broadly than their indicated use.

As well as building up a sales force in Europe and eventually in the US, British Bio plans to buy in "accessories" such as like anti-nausea and anti-pain drugs to provide oncologists with a full cancer kit. With marimastat at least 18 months away from filing, such massive up-front investment raises the stakes.

True, British Bio has plenty of cash and a lead drug, Zacutex for pancreatitis, which could be filed in Europe in early 1998, but if marimastat fails British Bio will struggle to recover. But serious drugs require serious backing. Glaxo's Zantac became a blockbuster not because it was a such a great ulcer remedy, but because every doctor knew about it. British Biotech's shares down 2.5p to 103p, near their year low, are a buy for those who understand the risks.