Dear Mr. Berko: It cost $22,000 last year to treat our 28-year-old son's HIV; three years earlier, his drug cocktail cost us $38,000 a year. He will take this drug cocktail every day for the rest of his life. He has no insurance; however, we have good support from our church and a medical team. It's difficult, but we will manage. And our son lives as normal a life as he can. We heard about Sangamo BioSciences, a company that "definitely has a one-shot cure for HIV," according to a close friend who recently bought 2,000 shares. How long will it take for this cure to be approved? Why does it work when nothing else does? My husband has $831 in cash in his individual retirement account. Should we buy 100 shares? — RA, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Dear RA: There are over 35 million folks with HIV, and many, like your son, must take a daily cocktail of antivirals for the rest of their lives. Sangamo BioSciences (SGMO-$6.83) uses a gene therapy treatment — currently in phase 2 trials — that "may" cure HIV with a single infusion. Here's how it works: The human immunodeficiency virus attacks T cells, which are supposed to defend the body's immune system, using the cells to reproduce itself and spread. Some of us have a natural resistance to HIV because our bodies are missing a specific protein that the virus needs to thrive. So the science guys at SGMO remove the T cells from the HIV patient and genetically alter them so they stop producing the protein needed by HIV. The altered T cells are then injected into the body and reproduce without the protein, starving the virus and preventing HIV infection from growing. According to my son, who is a doctor, a superb article about SGMO's cell division techniques (called In Vivo Protein Replacement Platform) was published in April's New England Journal of Medicine.
Drug research programs are mandated to have phase 1, phase 2 and phase 3 trials. In phase 1, the drug is tested on 20 to 80 healthy volunteers. The dosage is low to evaluate toxicity, to evaluate how well the drug is processed and to monitor its side effects. Phase 1 lasts between six months and a year. About 70 percent of drugs make it to phase 2. In phase 2, the drug is given to several hundred patients who suffer from the ailment the drug is supposed to treat. Researchers try to determine the effectiveness of the drug versus a placebo. Phase 2 lasts a year or longer, and only 35 percent of drugs that pass phase 1 pass phase 2. During phase 3, the drug is administered to thousands of patients, and its effectiveness is compared with that of drugs already on the market. Phase 3 takes two years or longer, and about 25 percent of drugs that enter phase 3 pass. And the time from approval to when the drug is placed on the market is between six months and two years. Your physician or church support group may be able to get your son into phase 3. It costs nothing to participate, and patients are usually paid a stipend for their time and travel. If SGMO's "one-shot" cure works, as some believers believe it will, your family and your son will enjoy a new life. The shares should vroom back toward the $50s, where it was when the stupids were franticly buying SGMO for fear that they'd miss out on a Golconda.
SGMO is home-ported in Richmond, California, and has 119 employees. Tell your doc or support team to call the folks at Sangamo at 510-970-6000. They may be able to locate a phase 3 trial near Cleveland Heights. Their yes-or-no answer is just a phone call away. But remember, when you're having lunch in Cleveland, the SGMO folks are having breakfast in Richmond.
Yes, buy 100 shares. Though SGMO is a terribly rank speculation, it's also a good terribly rank speculation. SGMO has no debt and over $200 million in cash, and 74 percent of the 71 million shares are owned by some of Wall Street's biggest funds. And the five brokerages following SGMO have a 12-month target price between $14 and $30.
Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775, or email him at [email protected] To find out more about Malcolm Berko and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Robert Linsdell