It was another up and down year for Canadian Life Sciences stocks.
In 2018, the downfall of the sector came in the last couple of months. A year later, it happened early when cannabis stocks began to collapse. (The S&P TSX Pharma & Biotech Index lost almost half of its value between March and the end of the year.)
In biotech, when you win you win big. But there were far more losers than winners in the sector (this list includes TSX and TSX Venture companies that began the year ten cents or higher, and excludes stocks with a market cap of less than $10-million). In fact, only about one-third of all stocks ended up postiive for the year. Notably, there are no cannabis stocks on this list.
Also, there was a lot of rotation. Bellus Health is the only stock to appear on last year’s list.
1. Medicenna Therapeutics (Medicenna Therapeutics Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:MDNA)
Market Cap: $105 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $0.70
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $3.40
Percentage Change: +386%
Stocks like Medicenna don’t come along everyday, as the stars were aligned for MDNA to shine in 2019. The biotech company has put its lead orphan drug candidate MDNA55 into a Phase 2b study for the treatment of recurrent glioblastoma (rGBM) with data arriving over the course of a few months last fall suggesting that MDNA55 had a better survival benefit that the current standard of care.
And while the gains in 2019 were impressive, investors can look for more upside in 2020, according to Mackie Research analyst André Uddin, who in a November 25 update to clients pointed to Medicenna’s upcoming meeting with the US FDA to see whether a BLA filing is in the cards for MDNA55. That meeting during Q1 will be followed up by final data from the Phase 2b trial in May.
In his November note, Uddin wrote, “We believe MDNA is highly undervalued – as it is a late-stage biotech company targeting an orphan cancer indication.”
2. IntelliPharmaCeutics International (IntelliPharmaCeutics International Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:IPCI)
Market Cap: $19 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $0.32
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $1.08
Percentage Change: +238%
Like Medicenna, IntelliPharmaCeutics ended the year with a bang. The Toronto-based pharma company is in the middle of applying for new drug status with the US FDA for its controlled-release and targeted-release oral dosage drug Aximiris XR.
Aximiris XR is aimed at delivering oxycondone hydrocholride in a method less susceptible to tampering and abuse than its cousin Oxycontin, and the stock rose in December on news that the FDA would be reviewing Aximiris XR. Another pivotal FDA meeting is scheduled for January 15.
3. Bellus Health (Bellus Health Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:BLU)
Market Cap: $627 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $3.06
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $9.81
Percentage Change: +221%
Clinical-stage drug company Bellus Health was the top biotech stock for 2018 and it kept up its scorching pace in 2019, returning a combined 397 per cent over the past two years.
For Bellus, it’s all about BLU-5937, acquired in 2017, which has a second indication for the treatment of atopic dermatitis and a lead indication to treat chronic cough and thus exposure to a potentially multi-billion dollar market opportunity.
Right now, Bellus is in a Phase 2a trial for refractory chronic cough and will be initiating a Phase 2 Proof-of-Concept trial for atopic dermatitis-induced chronic pruritis this year. Top-line efficacy and safety results for BLU-5937 are expected mid-year.
4. Aurinia Pharmaceuticals (Aurinia Pharmaceuticals Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:AUP)
Market Cap: $2.8 billion
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $9.28
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $26.29
Percentage Change: +183%
Victoria-based biotech name Aurinia was having a relatively quiet year until early December when the company announced positive results for its drug voclosporin’s Phase 3 trial on Lupus Nephritis, a condition for which there is currently no FDA-approved treatment. The stock promptly doubled in value and has shot even higher since.
Aurinia is expected to complete a rolling NDA submission during the first half of 2020 with a decision from the FDA likely during the fourth quarter and a US launch in 2021.
5. Aptose Biosciences (Aptose Biosciences Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:APS)
Market Cap: $564 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $2.60
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $7.35
Percentage Change: +183%
Oncology-focused biotech company Aptose has a number of potential cancer drugs in its pipeline, including experimental drug CG-806 for which the company offered promising preclinical data in December. That plus an announcement that pharma giant Merck would be acquiring ArQule, whose ARQ 531 is in the same realm as CG-806, pushed APS to double in value over the last month of the year. Even an equity raise through the sale of shares in mid-December did little to quell the stock’s momentum.
6. Acasti Pharma (Acasti Pharma Stock Quote, Chart, News TSXV:ACST)
Market Cap: $106 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $1.14
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $3.20
Percentage Change: +181%
Acasti’s fortunes are tied to its best-in-class omega-3 drug for treating severe hypertriglyceridemia, CaPre, which itself has been paired with biopharm company Amarin’s drug Vascepa, also an omega-3 drug. Late in 2019, Amarin received a favorable vote on its sNDA application for Vascepa, which pushed up Acasti’s share price in response.
There is a downside to this story, however, as this week Acasti announced results from a Phase 3 TRILOGY trials with CaPre. Top-line results showing that CaPre was not more effective than placebo in reducing high levels of triglycerides, a conclusion which sent Acasti shares downward. Acasti has a second Phase 3 TRILOGY trial for CaPre whose results are expected next month.
7. Essa Pharma (Essa Pharma Stock Quote, Chart, News TSXV:EPI)
Market Cap: $155 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $2.71
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $7.04
Percentage Change: +160%
Essa Pharma’s great year came from greater interest in its pre-clinical drug EPI-7386, which is aimed at treating prostate cancer. The company plans to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application, presented positive data on the pre-clinical drug in October and aims to start trials for EPI_7386 in 2020. Last year also saw Essa acquire beleaguered pharma company Realm Therapeutics.
8. Helix BioPharma (Helix BioPharma Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:HBP)
Market Cap: $185 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $0.53
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $1.34
Percentage Change: +153%
Helix BioPharma had fallen a long way in preceding years but 2019 proved a different story. The Richmond Hill, Ontario, immuno-oncology company is developing drug candidates for the prevention and treatment of cancer, including L-DOS47, its lead candidate for the treatment of non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. This week, Helix closed on a $3.0-million private placement with net proceeds going towards working capital and R&D activities.
9. Spectral Medical (Spectral Medical Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:EDT)
Market Cap: $169 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $0.29
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $0.72
Percentage Change: +148%
Clinical stage medical device company Spectral had some down years after a late-stage clinical failure in 2016 but the long-legged company (it’s in its 26th year on the TSX) looks to be headed in the right direction with its lead product, the Endotoxin Activity Assay (the EAA) for the treatment of septic shock. The company is currently in a Phase 3b trial to confirm earlier results which is likely to be completed by the end of 2021, potentially leading to the only FDA-approved treatment on the market for septic shock patients.
10. Oncolytics Biotech (Oncolytics Biotech Stock Quote, Chart, News TSX:ONC)
Market Cap: $169 million
Closing Price on December 31, 2018: $2.51
Closing Price on December 31, 2019: $6.15
Percentage Change: +145%
Cancer biologics developer Oncolytics has lead programs in metastatic breast cancer and first-line advanced pancreatic cancer. The stock was on-course for a negative year until the last week of December following an announcement that Oncolytics would be presenting at the 2020 Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium in January on its lead virus formulation Reolysin (pelareorep).
Canadian Life Sciences Stocks, Honourable Mentions
Sirona Biochem began 2019 below $0.10 and rose to $0.44
Valens GroWorks : +127%
MediPharm Labs: +122%