I've talked a lot in the past about food stocks and the remarkable recovery in UK manufacturing. But one sector that is really beginning to look exciting is biotech.
Dormant for years and abandoned by investors as a non-starter, biotech looks to be on the cusp of a thrilling revival. After a string of dramatic announcements in recent months, it seems that investors have discovered a new-found enthusiasm for these stocks.
Just look at what happened this week when drug researcher Sareum Holdings (LON:SAR) revealed news of another exciting breakthrough...
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The discovery that points to Biotech's extraordinary revival
On Monday, Dr Tim Mitchell, chief executive of the Cambridge-based drug researcher, reported that its Aurora+FLT3 Kinase programme had, in a pre-clinical in-vivo study, appeared to slow the progress of cancer.
Ten leukaemia patients were treated with this compound and their 'leukaemia regressed to such an extent that no detectable cancer could be found in any of the cases treated'. By contrast, for those who did not receive Sareum's compound, their leukaemia 'increased five to fifteen fold'.
That was enough to send Sareum's share price multiplying. Having drifted along for months at a price of about 0.25p, the shares took off, hitting 1.65p the following day and 4.79p on Wednesday. It has slipped back a little today. But those lucky enough to have been holding the shares and smart enough to have got out at the top could have multiplied their money nineteen-fold in the space of just three days.
No less impressive was the extraordinary volume of shares that were traded. On Wednesday 1,142,362,883 Sareum shares were traded, representing over 80% of its entire issued capital, and the excitement spread elsewhere.
Oxford-based Physiomics (LON:PYC) has developed a simulation platform that can show how a tumour will react to drug exposure. It saw its share price surge from 0.25p to an intra-day high of 0.68p
The US company Nextgen (LON:NGG), which offers a suite of services that can increase the traditionally low success rates associated with biomarker development, flew from 0.11p to a high of 0.53p
Valirx (LON:VAL), which focuses on the epigenomic analysis and treatment of cancer (the epigenome consists of chemical compounds that modify, or mark, the genome in a way that tells it what to do) almost doubled to 0.53p
This is an extraordinary revival for a sector that has been languishing for so long that most investors have given it up. But you need to be very careful here.
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A sector shot through with risk and scintillating rewards
A cure for cancer is the equivalent of finding a river of liquid gold. But still, the biotech industry is fraught with danger. It eats up money, and genuine successes are few and far between.
A few years ago high hopes were held for Antisoma (LON:ASM), also a company looking for successful cancer drugs. This week it was described as a company "that develops drugs that do not work". That's a harsh but fair verdict on a company that has seen its share price sink from 36p to 2.2p over the last twelve months.
Those who rushed into Sareum are already being brought face to face with some of the realities of biotech life. Today the company took advantage of the surge of interest to tap shareholders for £500,000, through the sale of 500 million new shares at a penny a time.
And a more careful reading of Sareum's Monday revelation shows that "at six weeks following treatment, no detectable cancer could be found in two of the ten examples dosed with the Sareum compound. In the remaining eight treated examples, the average time taken for the leukaemia to increase five-fold was six weeks, compared to two weeks in the untreated cases." So while Sareum's treatment seems to have some advantages over others, it appears to limit the spread of cancer, rather than kill it off completely.
How marvellous it would be if Sareum had a cancer cure! But shareholders should prepare for a long and bumpy ride. Biotech research is a laborious process. While successful developments in this area often improve upon existing therapies, few provide a total cure.
In time Sareum will need to find licensing partners, most probably big pharma companies with deep pockets. As big pharma cuts back on its own research spending, it is increasingly looking for small biotechs to do the early work, but the big boys do not move fast.
For example, investors bid the shares of Verona Pharma (LON:VRP) up to 18p in 2009 after it said that RPL554 compound was safe and effective for asthma patients. But it is yet to strike the anticipated licensing agreement.
So while there is no shortage of penny share drug discovery companies, this can be frustrating territory. You'll find obscure medical jargon, long time lines and a record of setbacks that far outweigh the successes. Many of the investors who have just warmed to biotech will make grave errors.
I've been following biotech stocks for a long time. And to be honest, it took a great deal of research before I was entirely comfortable with the medical jargon and dangers of investing in this sector. And for all that caution, I think I can still sometimes overestimate the potential of some of the biotechs I invest in.
This article was first published in Tom Bulford's twice-weekly small-cap investment email The Penny Sleuth.
Tom worked as a fund manager in the City of London and in Hong Kong for over 20 years. As a director with Schroder Investment Management International he was responsible for £2 billion of foreign clients' money, and launched what became Argentina's largest mutual fund.
Now working from his home in Oxfordshire, Tom Bulford helps private investors with his premium tipping newsletter, Red Hot Biotech Alert.
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