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Stocks to Watch at Biotech's Bellwether Conference

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Big news starts to spread as health care's biggest week begins.

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Arguably the biggest biotech conference of the year kicked off today in San Francisco as the industry flocked to the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Attendance at the conference usually stands as a bellwether for the sector, and if history holds true, biotechs will be red hot in 2010. It's standing room only this year at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, according to David Miller, CEO and co-founder of Biotech Stock Research, who is filing dispatches for Buzz and Banter.

(See also, Biotechs to Start the New Year With a Bang)

The news is slowly trickling out of the conference as Medtronic (MDT) Chairman Bill Hawkins talked about how the company will increase product launches by two to three times over the next couple of years, and Gilead (GILD) Chairman John Martin discussed the company's continued dominance in the HIV sector with its new investigational offering, the Quad.

Human Genome Sciences (HGSI) gave investors something to mull over Monday morning when the company's chief executive, H. Thomas Watkins, talked about the goals it plans to reach in 2010.

"In 2009, we and our partners successfully completed Phase 3 development of Benlysta for systemic lupus and Zalbin for chronic hepatitis C. In the fourth quarter of 2009, we submitted a Biologics License Application for Zalbin in the United States, and Novartis (NVS) submitted a Marketing Authorization Application under the brand name Joulferon in Europe," said Watkins. "We and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) plan to submit marketing applications for Benlysta in the US and Europe in the second quarter of 2010. We have the potential for regulatory approval of two major products in the US before the end of this year, both directed to large and growing markets that represent significant medical need."

Here are some companies to keep an on eye on over the next few days as the conference continues through January 14.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Idenix Pharmaceuticals (IDIX) announced preliminary data for three of its investigational Hepatitis C programs. The company gave the heads up to investors before its presentation at the conference on Thursday, when it will go in-depth about the data. IDX-184 is furthest along of the drugs; it entered phase 2 testing in the fourth quarter of 2009. The results showed that patients were responding to the lowest dose of the treatment, while none of the placebo patients had presented an undetectable viral load after 14 days.

"While its full profile remains to be seen with data from higher dose cohorts, this should relieve some of the concerns about the efficacy of the compound and positions IDX-184 as an attractive agent in the important class of nucleoside-based HCV polymerase inhibitors," said Leerink Swann analyst Howard Liang in a note to investors.

Idenix will also talk further on Thursday about a new hepatitis C treatment, IDX-320, which is set to enter early stage human testing. The new drug expands the company's offerings for the disease, giving it candidates in three different drug classes.

Investors were already pleased with this news, knocking the stock up more than 10% by midday to linger near $3.

Make sure you pay attention to Sangamo Biosciences (SGMO) on Wednesday. The company, which develops drugs that use gene regulation to turn on and off certain target genes, will discuss its drug for diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage that results from high blood sugar levels.

Sangamo will also give a progress report on its treatment for glioblastoma, a type of brain tumor. The diabetic neuropathy drug has had some setbacks in the past; some earlier studies showed that it was safe and well-tolerated, but failed to outperform the placebo. Investors will be watching to see that the new data for the drug is better. There are currently no treatments for diabetic neuropathy. The company also announced that it received $3 million in funding for the Phase 2b trial by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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