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Wall St. takes a fresh look at biotech, and likes what it sees

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In their hunt for a winning growth-stock formula for 2008, some investors have been heading back to the laboratory -- the biotech lab.

Biotech shares already were off to a surprisingly strong start in the third quarter even as the rest of the market was sinking. Then came Roche Holding’s offer on Monday to buy the 44% of Genentech Inc. it didn’t already own, for $89 a share.

The bid sent shares of the South San Francisco-based biotech giant up 15% to $93.88 on Monday, as Wall Street bet on a higher offer. More important for the industry, the offer further boosted interest in biotech issues across the board.

One key attraction: the companies’ potential for sales and profit growth despite the deteriorating economy.

Biotech ‘is pretty insulated from the economy,’ notes Karen Andersen, who tracks the industry for investment research firm Morningstar Inc. in Chicago..

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Eric Schmidt, a biotech analyst at Cowen & Co. in New York, said that even before the Roche offer for the rest of Genentech, investors had recently begun to pay more notice to biotech shares.

‘I think this is the first time in about three years that we’ve gotten calls from generalist investors’ asking about the stocks, he said. ‘I think they’re looking for visible earnings growth.’

Not a bad idea, given the recent disappointment from the other tech -- the computer realm. Google Inc.’s second-quarter earnings made no one happy on Wall Street. Apple Inc. sounded less upbeat about near-term growth. Texas Instruments Inc. bombed with its results.

Genentech, by contrast, on July 14 raised its full-year earnings estimate to a range of $3.40-$3.50 a share, from a previous range of $3.35-$3.45. The company earned $2.59 a share in 2007.

Many biotech shares made only modest progress in 2006-2007. The 20-stock BTK index gained 15.5% over the two years, underperforming the 20.3% rise in the Nasdaq composite index.

Meanwhile, sales and earnings have continued to grow rapidly at profitable players such as Biogen Idec Inc., Celgene Corp., Genzyme Corp., and Gilead Sciences Inc.

Many other biotech firms still are in the red, of course. But the hope for blockbuster drugs to emerge from the industry’s labs is ever present. And that’s more exciting than what’s going on at the major drug companies, which continue to suffer from generic competition and depleted new-product pipelines.

Investors even have turned back to one-time biotech industry star Amgen Inc., which has had its own growth worries of late. Shares of the Thousand Oaks-based company have rebounded 24% since June 13, to $54.60 on Tuesday.

Despite Amgen’s challenges, ‘They’re not going to earn less than $4 a share’ this year, Schmidt said. And there’s always the possibility of a takeover bid from a bigger, growth-needy drug firm, such as Eli Lilly & Co.

Two of Schmidt’s favorite companies: Cephalon Inc., a developer of drugs to treat cancer and central nervous system discorders; and Imclone Systems Inc., which has the anti-cancer drug Erbitux.

Andersen also likes Imclone as well as Amgen. Among early-stage companies, she likes Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is working on drugs that could interfere with disease-causing genes.


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