Millennium jumps on positive blood cancer drug studies

Its drug Velcade could be next contender for first-line treatment of multiple myeloma; company weighs competition vs. combo with Celgene's Revlimid.

By Aaron Smith, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- The market for blood cancer treatment is heating up. And that could result in a David versus Goliath face-off, or a potentially potent partnership.

The drugmaker Millennium Pharmaceuticals (up $0.26 to $10.77, Charts) unveiled a raft of positive early-stage study results on Thursday for its drug Velcade, which could give it a competitive edge in the blood cancer market against the much larger biotech Celgene (down $0.68 to $57.99, Charts). Millennium's stock rose more than 2 percent on the news.

Or, the two companies could combine their cancer drugs -- Velcade from Millennium and Revlimid from Celgene -- to create a potent new combo treatment for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow.

Millennium reported a slew of results on Thursday at the International Myeloma Workshop in Greece, including a small, early-stage study that looked at how Velcade worked in combination with Revlimid in newly-diagnosed patients who had not been previously treated for multiple myeloma. In that study, that company said that the combined drugs stopped the spread of cancer in 13 of 15 patients, or 87 percent.

Millennium spokesman Kyle Kuvalanka said that Velcade could someday be combined with Revlimid, if further tests are successful. But a Celgene spokesman did not immediately return messages asking if this partnership would be viable.

In a separate early-stage study, Millennium reported that its Velcade, combined with the generic cancer drugs melphalan and prednisone, completely stopped the spread of multiple myeloma in 43 percent of patients over 38 months.

"[Velcade] is like a transplant, it's so good at cancer remission," said Dr. Nancy Simonian, Millennium's chief medical officer. She added that Velcade might eventually "supplant the use of [bone marrow] transplants," a difficult and risky procedure that is traditionally used on multiple myeloma patients.

"This is a quiver in Millennium's arsenal because it shows that Velcade is a very viable drug in terms of efficacy," said Jason Kolbert, analyst for the research firm Susquehanna Financial Group.

The injectable drug Velcade is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of multiple myeloma, as well as for mantle cell lymphoma. Sales for the drug, which entered the market in 2003, totaled $58 million in the first quarter of 2007, and Millennium projects sales of $240 million to $260 million for this year. Millennium partnered with the drug giant Johnson & Johnson (up $0.26 to $61.71, Charts, Fortune 500) to develop the drug.

Velcade is currently approved only to treat multiple myeloma patients who have already tried -- and failed -- prior treatments, such as Revlimid and Thalomid, both of which are made by Celgene. Each of those drugs are approved as initial treatments for this type of cancer. Initial treatment, known as "first-line," is a coveted area for drug companies because it promises more sales.

But Kolbert of Susquehanna said it's too early to gauge the effectiveness of Velcade as part of a first-line drug combo in stopping the spread of multiple myeloma.

"While an 87 percent response rate, 13 out of 15 patients, is very impressive, it still needs to be evaluated in a larger trial," said Kolbert.

If these test results are in fact repeated in later-stage trials, Kolbert said it "bodes well for justification for using both drugs together," referring to a Velcade-Revlimid combo.

Sales for Celgene's Revlimid got an extra boost on June 15, when it was approved to treat multiple myeloma in the European Union. Revlimid sales totaled $320 million in 2006. Sales for Celgene's other multiple myeloma drug, Thalomid, totaled $433 million that year.

Based in Summit, N.J., Celgene is a fast-growing biotech that saw its stock price surge 77 percent in 2006.

Christopher Raymond, analyst for the investment research firm R.W. Baird, said in a published note that Millennium plans to unveil more advanced study results for Velcade in December.

"If similarly positive, those trials could change the market dynamics in multiple myeloma significantly," said Raymond. Top of page