At the beginning of this month, in an interview with Bloomberg, AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said that, in an attempt to gain exposure to the current boom in CAR T treatment for oncology, he would certainly consider acquiring a company like Juno Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ:JUNO) . The full quote is below:
“If at some point we conclude we need to make an acquisition, we certainly would consider it, there’s no question about it.”
On release of the the statement, Juno stock gained nearly 7% during the day’s New York session, but has since declined to trade relatively flat as compared to pre-statement levels. While this is an example of the media driven volatility we often see in the biotech space, it has drawn a number of investor eyeballs to consider Juno’s potential, and question whether it could a) become a potential acquisition target for current incumbents looking for exposure, or b) expand to become a blockbuster in the oncology space on its own. Since Soriot laid his cards on the table, we have seen a number of updates worth highlighting regarding Juno and its ongoing pipeline, and so the question for today is, what are these updates, and – in light of their implications – is Juno undervalued at its current market capitalization? Let’s take a look.
First, let’s have a quick look at what Juno is working on so we can get an idea of the market potential for its pipeline. The company is a development stage biotech company that develops cellular immune therapies on two distinct and complementary platforms. The first is what’s called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) and the second, T-cell receptors (TCRs). Both types of technology are used to target cancer cells, and once targeted, activate the T cells, CARs and CARs in the human’s own immune system to attack and destroy cancerous cells. It is the former of these two different types of technology – the CAR-T technology that is currently a hot topic in oncology. The science behind it is pretty complicated but it can be simplified by saying that the antigen receptor uses what’s called a single chain variable fragment, or scFv, to recognize a protein of interest. The scFv comes from an antibody that will automatically recognize a target protein on a cancer cell, and, when binded, triggers a T-cell response. There are lots of different types of T cells in the human immune system, but these ones serve to flag up the cancer cells so that other T cells in the immune system can destroy them.
So what have we seen that plays in Juno’s favour over the last few weeks? Well, first of all, we saw an initiation of coverage of Juno therapeutics by well-known research organization Maxim Group. Maxim initiated coverage when Juno was trading at $51 per share back on June 17, and pinned a buy rating with a $78 price target on the biotech. For reference, Juno is currently trading at $49 a share. Among other things, the organization puts the complete response rate of up to 91% seen in clinical trials to date, and the potential for CAR approval by early 2017 as primary drivers behind its initial rating. The price target comes without consideration of potential acquisition by a company like Astrazeneca, and – therefore – looks conservative from an optimist’s perception.
Second, we heard on June 16, 2015, that billionaire investor and fund manager George Soros had expanded his position in Juno. For those not familiar with Soros, he is the brains behind the Quantum fund, famous for achieving returns that exceeded 30% per year during the late 70s and 80s. He is also famous the shorting the UK sterling ahead of Black Wednesday and netting more than $1 billion on a single trade. Anyway, back to the present, in mid-June this year, we learned that over the last reported quarter (Q1 2015) Soros had increased his overall position in Juno through his fund “Soros Fund Management” by more than 300% to reach approximately 105,500 shares – or in dollar terms – $6.4 million. Now, for a company worth $4.62 billion as Juno is, this doesn’t seem – on the face of things – like a particularly large position. However, it is the growth in position size that we are looking at primarily, and – a 300% expansion in any position size is a vote of confidence. Further, a vote of confidence from one of the world’s leading investors.
So, what’s the takeaway? Well, things look to be going well for Juno. We have a number of key data releases scheduled throughout the latter half of this year, and these could prove medium-term momentum drivers for those looking for a speculative entry on news driven volatility. However, looking longer-term, recent releases and the potential for a mega cap acquisition seems to suggest that the good news continues to pour out of Juno, while the smart money looks to be getting in.