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Anthera Pharma plunges on lupus drug study results

NEW YORK (AP) -- Shares of Anthera Pharmaceuticals Inc. plummeted Thursday after the company said its experimental lupus treatment blisibimod failed in a clinical trial, and changed its development plans for the drug.

THE SPARK: Anthera said blisibimod did not meet its goals in the study, because two of the three doses it studies were not effective when compared to a placebo. The company said patients who received 200 milligrams of blisibimod per week experienced improvement, but those who received 100 milligrams per week or 200 milligrams per month did not do significantly better than patients who were given a dummy shot.

Anthera said the 200-milligram-per-week dose of blisibimod was effective when given to severely ill patients who were already being treated with corticosteroids, and it said it wants to continue studying that dose and that group of patients in a late-stage clinical trial.

THE BIG PICTURE: Anthera, of Hayward, Calif., is a development stage company with no products on the market. In March, the company stopped a late-stage trial of its acute coronary syndrome drug varespladib, because an analysis of clinical trial data indicated the drug was not working. Varespladib was its most advanced drug candidate.

Anthera is also studying a potential treatment for symptoms of sickle cell disease.

Anthera said it would eliminate almost half its staff positions, or 17 out of 38 jobs, in the wake of the disappointing varespladib results.

THE ANALYSIS: JMP Securities analyst Liisa Bayko downgraded the stock to "Market Perform" from "Outperform." She said the trial results were disappointing, and Anthera is planning to study blisibimod in a group of patients who can already be treated with Benlysta, a drug that was approved in 2011.

"We believe this will be a tough sell for Anthera both commercially and to a potential partner, unless both Benlysta and Eli Lilly and Co.'s tabalumab subcutaneous formulations are not viable," Bayko wrote, noting that data on those drugs is expected in 2014.

Benlysta is marketed by Human Genome Sciences Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC. Sales of Benlysta are currently around $11 million per month, but some analysts believe it could eventually bring in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

SHARE ACTION: Shares of Anthera Pharmaceuticals sank $1.93, or 70 percent, to 82 cents in afternoon trading. Earlier the stock fell to 81 cents, its lowest point since the stock debuted in March 2010. The stock traded as high as $9.08 in May.