Healthcare Business

Peregrine Move Looks Sustainable, at Least for Now

Peregrine Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NASDAQ: PPHM) may be on the verge of something big with its anticancer drugs. The shares soared almost 50% on Wednesday, and the stock was indicated higher in both Wednesday’s after-hours session and in Thursday’s early trading indications.

The news that drove the stock was that the company will present data at conferences on three preclinical studies that highlight its immune-oncology technology. Peregrine is working on developing drugs that can train the body’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells.

That Peregrine is presenting data does not mean its drugs are heading to market any time soon. But investors are betting that Peregrine’s announcement about its presentations means there is potential. If the data was crummy, there might be just minimal disclosure.

Peregrine shares have doubled in price this year, helped by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement in January that it is fast-tracking bavituximab, Peregrine’s lung-cancer treatment. The FDA designation is applied to drugs that treat serious or life-threatening illnesses and fill an unmet medical need. It lets drug companies move products through the approval process more quickly.

In addition to bavituximab and related systems, Peregrine has a brain-cancer drug Cotara. It also operates a contract drug manufacturing business.

Technically, Peregrine’s drugs are known as phosphatidylserine-targeting antibodies. Phosphatidylserine — or PS — is a chemical agent found on the inside of healthy cells that helps fight off diseases. The chemical often appears on the outside of cancer cells. As a result, the body’s immune system will not detect the cancers. So, the goal is to stop the PS in cancer cells from preventing the immune system from doing its work.

Founded in 1981, Peregrine has rarely been profitable; it had an accumulated deficit of $383 million at the end of October. The Tustin, Calif., company is expected to report a fiscal third-quarter loss of $0.06 a share on Friday, with revenue of $5.1 million. That compares with a loss of $0.04 a share and revenue of $7 million a year ago. The Street estimate is for a $0.24 loss for the fiscal year, with revenue flat at just under $22 million.

Peregrine’s survival depends on its ability to sell more equity to finance its research and development. About 16% of its outstanding shares are held by institutions. The four-largest holders as of December 31 are Barclays Global Investors, Blackrock Fund Advisors, Vanguard Group and Northern Trust. All had boosted their investments from their previous reports.

Peregrine’s shares finished at $2.82, up 91 cents, against a 52-week range of $1.11 to $2.88. What makes the strong move stand out even more is that the stock closed within 3% of its new 52-week high of $2.88. This means that even after the huge gain, there was little profit taking.

Early indications on Thursday had the stock higher as well, even above the prior 52-week high of $2.88. To get a jump of close to 50% and then not see much profit taking, followed by gains yet again, implies that traders and investors believe the move is sustainable — at least for the time being.

Investors must always be cautious in small biotechs. They are wildly volatile stocks. Peregrine’s shares traded as low as $0.40 in August 2012, zoomed above $5 in September 2012, then crashed again.

One word of caution: Peregrine is scheduled to report earnings on Friday morning. The company also had a preferred stock offering in mid-February.

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