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Steve Jobs: Can His Case Help Propel Biopharma?

Recently three high-profile cases of pancreatic cancer have elevated a tumor type that many argue gets short shrift.

Actor Patrick Swayze, professor-turned-motivational speaker Randy Pausch (he recently passed away) and now Apple's Steve Jobs have--voluntarily or involuntarily--saw or have seen their private battles against pancreatic cancer go public.

Even though it's one of the leading causes of cancer death in the U.S., pancreatic normally doesn't get much attention.

Julie Fleshman, the President and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network tells "Pharma's Market" in an email, "It is unfortunate that it takes high profile cases to raise awareness, but the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is hopeful that the heightened visibility will lead to increased federal and private funding for pancreatic cancer research and ultimately a cure for this devastating disease."

I am absolutely making no judgments about the prognosis for Mr. Swayze or Mr. Jobs, but the fact is that the disease, in general, is almost always fatal and the treatment options are few. There's Gemzar from Eli Lilly and Tarceva from OSI Pharmaceuticals and Genentech . However, several biopharma companies are in the final stages of testing other drugs to potentially treat it.

In big cap biotech, Genentech, which is testing Avastin on seemingly every tumor type, is in late-stage clinical trials of the drug on pancreatic cancer. We could possibly get an update on the company's earnings conference call later today. BioMed Tracker, which handicaps the chances of developmental drugs getting to market and their sales potential, gives the drug a 47 percent chance of winning FDA approval (20 percent below the industry average) and forecasts peak sales of Avastin for pancreatic cancer at $149 million. If it works, it would clearly be a significant development for doctors, patients and their loved ones. But for investors, if BioMed's estimate is accurate, it's really an incremental market.

(*NOTE THIS UPDATE: A Genentech spokesperson emailed me to set the record straight. The information I got off of BioMed tracker apparently was incorrect. The company says it is no longer developing Avastin for pancreatic cancer after failing to work well enough in two clinical trials in 2006 and 2007.*)

In big pharma, Pfizer , Lilly and Sanofi-Aventis all have drugs for pancreatic cancer in what's called phase three clinical trials. That's typically the last step before seeking FDA approval if the results are good enough. LLY's candidate is Erbitux which it recently stuffed into its portfolio and pipeline with the acquisition of ImClone Systems. Mid-, small- and micro-cap biotechs, including Regeneron Pharmaceuticals , Supergen, Genvec and Threshold Pharmaceuticals are also working on drugs in late-stage development.

Patter Birsic and Jane Holt, the Co-Founders and Co-Presidents of the National Pancreas Foundation emailed this statement that also takes a bit of a stand regarding the case of Steve Jobs: "The reality is that celebrities do bring attention to the disease. When they chose to speak publicly about their health, Dr. Pausch and Mr. Swayze performed a tremendous public service.By choosing not (Note: the underline is their emphasis) to speak publicly about his health, Mr. Jobs has also done a tremendous public service. His choice reminds us that a person's health is a private matter. We respect that choice, and the right of all patients to choose how they will deal with a very serious, and private, matter."

    • Apple Shares Pare Losses, but Still Lower on Jobs News

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com

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