National Editor

IDEC Pharmaceuticals Corp. licensed a small-molecule cancer drug from Japan and the company's chief financial officer resigned, but analysts seemed just as interested - if not more - in a third bit of news not formally disclosed by the company: an abstract showing how well Rituxan (rituximab) worked against rheumatoid arthritis in Phase II trials.

"You want a company to have a well-balanced pipeline, but in a market this risk-averse, people are focused on commercialized products or nearly commercialized products," said Patrick Mooney, analyst with Thomas Weisel Partners LLC in New York.

The abstract, detailing interim Phase II results with Rituxan (already approved for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) against RA, will be presented Oct. 26 at a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in New Orleans, and has been posted on the ACR website,

Data from the first 122 patients in the Phase II trial suggest combinations of Rituxan and methotrexate resulted in statistically significant improved efficacy compared to methotrexate alone, according to the abstract. Rituxan alone also seemed to be more effective than methotrexate, but not to a statistically significant degree.

Rituxan, a non-radiolabeled chimeric antibody, was developed with South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. and is approved for relapsed or refractory, low-grade or follicular, CD20-positive, B-cell NHL.

Vince Reardon, director of corporate communications at IDEC, told BioWorld Today the Phase II study "should be finished in a couple of months," with full data available several months later.

William Tanner, analyst with Leerink Swann & Co. in Boston, said Tuesday in a research note that Leerink's physician consultants believe Rituxan's RA data are "too nascent to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the drug" in that indication, and more testing will be required before it could be regarded as a contender against Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen Inc.'s RA blockbuster Enbrel (etanercept).

IDEC's second product, Zevalin (ibritumomab tiuxetan), a radioimmunotherapy also approved for NHL, has been the focus of interest lately, as well. Medicare officials want to cut the reimbursement level for Zevalin as part of a wider effort by the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services to keep drug costs down.

"We're waiting to hear from them," Reardon said.

Mooney, with Weisel Partners, told BioWorld Today "there's a substantial risk that IDEC will take some kind of haircut on Zevalin."

Meanwhile, IDEC licensed from Nippon Shinyaku Ltd., of Tokyo, an orally administered stilbene prodrug against cancer, known as HMN-214. IDEC gets worldwide rights except in Asia.

Nippon, through its Parsippany, N.J.-based subsidiary, NS Pharma Inc., has the compound in Phase I trials in patients with advanced or metastatic cancer who have failed standard therapies.

IDEC, which made an undisclosed up-front payment to Nippon and will pay milestones as well as potential royalties, will be testing the drug in cancers including colorectal, non-small-cell lung and prostate, and extending its oncology reach to non-hematological cancers. Reardon said the Phase I trials are expected to finish soon.

Mooney hailed the company's efforts, noting at the same time that IDEC is "trading at a substantial premium to the peer group. Given the risk to Zevalin pricing, we're advising near-term caution on the shares."

IDEC also disclosed Tuesday that Phillip Schneider, senior vice president and CFO, retired in order to pursue personal and community interests. The company has begun a search for his replacement, and in the meantime has turned over Schneider's duties to Edward Rodriguez, vice president and controller.

The change is no reflection on the company, Mooney said, noting that Schneider wanted to spend more time with his family.

IDEC's stock (NASDAQ:IDPH) closed Tuesday at $41.66, up 14 cents.