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Can ASX biotech companies really grow wings?


Published 07-SEP-2018 10:20 A.M.


5 minute read

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Since the 1950s, when Dr George Gey established a continuous cell line taken from a human cervical carcinoma, the world of biotechnology has evolved at a rapid rate. In that decade alone, the first polio vaccine was developed, the first kidney transplant performed and the first automatic protein sequencer was developed.

Here’s a timeline of medical biotechnology leading up to the early 2010s.

Millennials may cite biotechnology from the mid-20th century as ancient, but of course humans have been playing around with nature for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Fermentation of wine was said to occur in Assyria in 3500 BCE — no wonder we are so good at perfecting a full bodied Shiraz.

In China in 500 BCE, the first antibiotic, mouldy soybean curds were put to use to treat boils.

Key dates prior to the 1950s include:

  • 1802: the word ‘biology’ first appears.
  • 1822-1895: Vaccination against small pox and rabies developed by Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur.
  • 1909: genes are linked with hereditary disorders.
  • 1911: American pathologist Peyton Rous discovers the first cancer-causing virus.
  • 1915: Phages, or bacterial viruses, are discovered.
  • Pfizer turned its attention to penicillin, the mass production of which was a major factor in the Allied victory in WWII.
  • 1942: Penicillin is mass-produced in microbes for the first time.

I could go on, but perhaps this video documenting biotechnology in film will give you a more entertaining overview.

Admittedly, that video is somewhat farcical: we’re not going to grow wings, Bruce Banner ourselves into being the Incredible Hulk, create super mutant packs of dogs that evil conglomerates will unleash on the world after they’ve let loose an apocalyptic virus, or become Spiderman.

If you want to be entertained or moved to tears by some serious biotech films, check out these movies: Awakenings, Extraordinary Measures, Gattaca, Love and Other Drugs and The Constant Gardner.

Some of these are negative portrayals of big pharma.

The ethics of big pharma are debatable and deserve a long-form serious analysis, so let’s avoid the debate for now and look at the good work small biotech companies are doing.

Starting with Rhythm Biosciences (ASX:RHY).

Rhythm Biosciences is commercialising a blood test to help detect early colorectal cancer, the second-largest cause of cancer related deaths in Australia, the US and Europe.

The company spoke with Carrie LaFrenz of The Australian just prior to listing. Healthcare veteran and RHY board member Shane Tanner told LaFrenz, “It's such a feel-good company, because if you get colorectal cancer early it's a higher success rate of survival. At the moment it's a one product company, focused on the blood test. But we will be looking for other products once we commercialise ColoSTATTM.

"Faecal tests can be off-putting, it has about 30 per cent take-up rate, so many people just don't do it. So we see this as an eventual replacement for that. It's a low-cost test that can be rolled out worldwide to mass screening market, and it would become part of your regular annual health check along with something like cholesterol."

The proposed ColoSTATTM blood test has the potential to efficiently detect colorectal cancer at all stages, including the early ones. The test is to be an immunoassay — a biochemical test that measures the presence or concentration of multiple protein biomarkers for colorectal cancer. It is a cost effective, minimally invasive test that offers an alternative option to those who don’t want to undertake traditional methods of screening.

Then there is Immuron (ASX:IMC | NASDQ:IMRN).

The dual listed microbiome biopharmaceutical group is currently collaborating on research and development agreements with the US Department of Defence (DoD) with regard to its Travelan product.

You can read more about the latest development in this relationship in yesterday’s Finfeed article: Immuron’s Travelan® protects against Shigella in primates.

Travelan is a natural product, specifically designed to reduce the risk of infection by Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), the most common cause of Travellers Diarrhoea (Bali belly).

Both Rhythm Biosciences and Immuron are small speculative companies with the potential for a lot of growth ahead of them. There are many other promising biotech companies and many were logged at the beginning of the year as ones to watch:

Here’s a reading list to get you up to speed:

And this one from Business Insider who went a bit nuts naming 23 Australian Biotech Stocks To Watch This Year.

We are now well and truly in the back half of 2018, so we’ll have a look at the performance of these stocks as we round out 2018. It will certainly be interesting to see how well they performed.

As you can see, this is serious business, but maybe, just maybe some of these companies can grow wings, Hulk out or spin their own intricate webs of success.

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Jonathan Jackson is an experienced editor and writer who has worked in print and digital media for almost 20 years. He has edited titles across a range of industries including sports and lifestyle, health, trade and business and finance. He is RG146 certified and is currently the Managing Editor at Stocks Digital.

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