Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Happy Gene Therapy Talk Presaged Market Correction

In January, many biotech stocks went parabolic shattering all-time-highs.  Now they have started crashing back down to earth.

The run-up was partly driven by real fundamentals.  These include corporate tax reform in the US, a new FDA commissioner (Scott Gottlieb) who makes all the right decisions (speeding access to innovative medicines, fostering generic competition, amenable to rational discussion etc), and a voracious appetite for innovative pipelines in the pharmaceutical industry which has manifested itself in a number of chunky, multibillion dollar acquisitions. 

At the same time, ever-increasing valuations in a deceptively low-volatility stock market environment has emboldened analysts, investors, and managements alike to proclaim that the golden era of curative medicines is upon us.  Gene therapy and genome editing in particular got hyped beyond reason as if all of a sudden critical bottlenecks in tech development had been solved.  CRISPR companies Editas Medicines and CRISPR Therapeutics, without a single drug candidate in the clinic, were bid up to $2B valuations although access to genome editing tools have become a commodity and cannot be considered gate-keeping tech any more.

Not much changed technology-wise

I understand that gene therapies have made tremendous inroads into the pharmaceutical marketplace with the first 3 gene therapy approvals in the US over the last year, one for an eye disease by Spark Therapeutics and two CAR-T cell cancer therapies going after the same target.

While I acknowledge these successes, what is really surprising here is that it took that long to get there given that the related delivery and genetic technologies (AAV, gene insertion, immune cell transfer) have been in existence for a decade or two already.  In that light, the recent Happy Talk around gene therapy seemed overdone.

The CEO of one genome editing company, Sangamo Therapeutics, is a great example of this divergence between scientific progress and clinical reality.  

Having come on board only a year ago, the good Dr. Macrae looks as if he is having a steep learning curve ahead of himself.  The reason I got the impression is that he likes to grandiosely talk about how the company's AAV capsid shuffling will enable them to cure all these CNS disorders while making great progress with LNPs to address the rest of humanity's afflictions.

Well, LNPs have gotten 10x more potent every year for the last 15 years so we must have reached homeopathic doses by now; and looking at the literature, AAV shuffling hasn't changed all that much since I completed my post-doc in an AAV lab in Stanford.  Or maybe Jim Wilson has grown exceedingly gun-shy when he resigns from his well-paying function at AAV company Solid Biosciences over concerns of toxicity from high systemic AAV doses and possibly also his finding that delivery to a certain tissue in the mouse does not predict same delivery in humans.

Certainly, there are also tailwinds supporting gene therapy that had not been around a decade ago.  As alluded to above, society and regulators have finally warmed up to a very sensible approach to medicines in the genomic era.  Moreover, there are established paths now to effectively develop such therapies and the challenge of producing large quantities of viral vectors is gradually being addressed.

Still, amid the hype and stock market giddiness, valuations in many of these companies have run ahead of themselves and were ripe for a pull-back.

Next time you hear so much Happy Talk around a biotech subsector leader as has been the case for gene therapy, watch out for a correction.   

What about RNAi stocks?

RNAi stocks have also benefited from the overall bullishness in the biotech sector with ARWR and DRNA having run up by 300% or so in a matter of months.  While I still hold shares in these companies, I have written calls (largely in-the-money) on essentially all of them meaning that I am fairly insulated should they fall another 10% or so.   

Since I still like ARWR and DRNA ahead of their first clinical GalNAc knockdown data, and in the case of Dicerna the potential removal of the overhang from the Alnylam litigation, I am eyeing (and have been) selling out-of-the money puts on these for 10+% premiums or so.

If the market turns back up, you pocket the premium. 10% or so in a matter of 2 months is not bad in my mind.  If, however, the stocks decline and the puts are in-the-money at expiration, you get handed a stock that you like anyway.  Say Arrowhead for a price of $4.5 instead of $5.45 yesterday.  

But before you place any such options bets, consult with your investment advisor first to familiarize you with the risks of writing options!

On the simple, naked long side, I like Ionis Pharmaceuticals which, as a biotech stock that has essentially missed out on the post-Trump rally and with the upcoming Huntington’s data catalyst, has the potential to become a new biotech bellwether following subsector rotations that usually occur following corrections (remember the 2015 correction following which oligonucleotide stocks turned from sector leaders to laggards?).  Alnylam, meanwhile, looks tired here with a lot of the upside priced in, at least regarding the TTR story.

Happy trading and be mindful.


Steve_382 said...

I would just note that if ARWR goes to $1.00, heaven forbid, you still have to buy it for $5 or whatever your strike price was. Still, you have the premium to keep, so it's maybe not quite as bad as being long and seeing it go to $1.00. People just need to understand their positions.

Dirk Haussecker said...

Steve- point taken. When selling puts, only sell as much as you are happy to invest in the underlying company. Say you feel like buying 2000 shares of ARWR on the pullback. Under the current circumstances (more downside possible), I would consider selling 20 puts strike $5 for $0.5+ per share. So if it goes down to $1, my cost basis would have been $4.5 or less instead of $5.45.

Brent said...

Differently need to understand your risk in the option market. I have sold puts (at the money) and bought calls (in the money) in ARWR from time to time. I’m currently long Jan 19 calls + stock. My Dec 4 puts expired worthless. I was willing to pick up ARWR around 3.5. I would like to swap some stock for in the money calls however the Leaps are now short-term. I find it very challenging to build a position in ARWR options because of the lack of liquidity and what you have to give up to get into a position. You have to tighten up the market yourself. I'm considering protection for Fridays night CC (concerning). They raised funds in 2016 before disclosing in Nov. They have the funds to last for a while now....is AMGN pulling the plug?

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