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ImClone & Bristol To "FLEX" Muscles At ASCO

ImClone - Erbitux
ImClone - Erbitux

The American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, which starts today in Chicago, couldn't get any bigger for ImClone Systems and its Erbitux partners Bristol-Myers Squibb and the German Merck (no relation to the U.S.-based Merck).

Merck KGaA paid for the study which goes by the acronym FLEX (check out how much they stretched to come up with FLEX: First Line Treatment for Patients With EGFR EXpressing Advanced NSCLC). (Glossary: EGFR is epidermal growth factor receptor and NSCLC is non-small cell lung cancer.) It's expected to be the headliner at this year's ASCO.

The embargo on the highly anticipated data on Erbitux for lung cancer lifts at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday. So, that gives analysts and investors nearly 24 hours to figure out what they mean for trading in BMY and IMCL on Monday morning. The companies announced last year that patients with a certain type of lung cancer lived longer. The crucial questions to be answered at ASCO are exactly how much longer and with what side effects.

Ahead of the event Leerink Swann analyst Howard Liang is initiating coverage of IMCL today with an "Outperform" (euphemism for "Buy") rating and a 12-month price target of $55. He writes in the research note to clients, "We believe that the strength of Erbitux data could be better than many perceive. Lung cancer could add a $500 million-plus opportunity in the US for Erbitux." Leerink Swann makes a market in IMCL.

Coincidentally, the equivalent of a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee in Europe today is recommending approval there of Erbitux as a first-line of defense for colon cancer. Right now, it's approved for later stages of the disease as well as head and neck cancer. That news seemed to turn around shares of BMY and IMCL in early trading this morning.

Between the FLEX data and previously released positive test results on Eli Lilly's Alimta, lung cancer is the rather unlikely focus of this year's ASCO. The disease typically gets relatively little attention because it's a tough, fast-moving cancer to combat. And as a result, experts say patients--frankly and sadly--don't live long enough to lobby for and galvanize significant support.

There's also the lingering stigma of cigarette smoking, even though one lung cancer specialist tells me 15-20 percent of today's cases are in non-smokers. But over the past few years, treatment options have increased dramatically. In addition to chemo, doctors now have Genentech's Avastin, Tarceva from OSI Pharmaceuticals and Genentech, Lilly's Alimta, and maybe soon, Erbitux to choose from. Experts say it's fast becoming all about mixing, matching and tailoring drug combos for individual patients or what's referred to as the burgeoning trend of "personalized medicine."

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com

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