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Conference May Help to Ease Biotech's Ills


The biotechnology sector, a star for much of this year but another victim of the latest tech-stock slide, may get a boost next week as a major industry conference gets underway.

BancBoston Robertson Stephens expects to attract about 1,000 investors to its annual medical conference in New York. Companies have used the conference in the past to detail sales forecasts, progress in clinical trials and other news. Investors expect this year's four-day meeting to be no different.

"I think a lot of companies save the best news for this conference, and it usually starts building up optimism in the [biotech] group," said Stephen Flaks, manager of the Flaks Partners LP fund. "There are more companies coming to Robertson Stephens than ever before."

The conference comes amid a 22.6% drop in the Amex biotech stock index since Nov. 1, as investors have again fled high-valuation stocks.

Still, the index is down just 28.6% from its spring all-time high--a mild decline, given what has happened in other tech sectors. And it's still up 48% since Jan. 1.

The conference will be "a good chance to see everybody before the end of the year and see how you want to reposition your portfolio," said Laurence Blumberg, president of Blumberg Capital Management.

Health-care companies, medical device makers and specialty pharmaceutical companies also will be featured at the conference.

Some investors are betting that Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. (ticker symbol: CBST) will discuss plans to develop a pill version of daptomycin antibiotic, its lead drug candidate. Cubist earlier this month entered into a research collaboration with Emisphere Technologies Inc. (EMIS) on the drug.

The Medicines Co. (MDCO) could discuss data on Angiomax, an experimental anti-clotting drug that's being developed as an alternative to heparin, Blumberg said. The company is expected to receive U.S. regulatory approval for the drug next year. It would be the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm's first drug.

Chiron Corp. (CHIR) may discuss its progress in developing new drugs for cancer, heart disease and the blood infection known as sepsis. Investors have been concerned about Chiron's pipeline because many of its experimental drugs are early in clinical development.

Investors also may question executives from Affymetrix (AFFX), a maker of chips that contain genetic material, about several patent infringement lawsuits and how it expects to contend with new competition from companies such as Motorola for so-called gene chips.

Investors also will be eager to hear from executives of Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. (MLNM), whose shares have been among the hardest hit of the biotech stocks this month. Millennium had risen 150% this year through Nov. 1, even though the company has yet to introduce a drug on the market. The stock is down 39% since Nov. 1.

Other companies scheduled to present at the conference include Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD), Abgenix Inc. (ABGX), Neurocrine Biosciences Inc. (NBIX), Immunex Corp. (IMNX), MiniMed Inc. (MNMD) and Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY).

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