3 Bold Bets on the Future of Biotechnology

By Markets Fool.com

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While we Fools generally invest in companies that are established and generating cash, we also recognize that there's room for speculation in almost any portfolio. After all, companies that go on to create the next big thing can produce life-changing returns for their shareholders.

With that in mind, we asked our team of healthcare contributors to each highlight a company that has bet big on an emerging area of biotechnology. The companies they picked: Cempra (NASDAQ: CEMP), Intrexon (NYSE: XON), and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK). Read on to find out why.

Next-generation antibiotics

Brian Feroldi: Since antibiotics were first discovered roughly 90 years ago, they have saved countless lives. However, we have been overusing them for decades, which has caused some harmful bacteria to build up resistance. That's become a real problem: antibiotic-resistant pneumonia rates currently exceed 50% in the U.S. Clearly, there's a huge need for new therapies.

Cempra is one company focused on finding a solution. The company's lead compound is called solithromycin, and it's currently pending FDA approval as a treatment for community-acquired bacterial pneumonia, or CABP. Roughly 5 to 10 million cases of CABP are diagnosed annually in the U.S., so if solithromycin can win the green light from regulators, then this drug could turn into a blockbuster.

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The FDA's antimicrobial advisory committee is set to meet on Nov. 4 to discuss solithromycin, so investors should have a good idea of which way the agency is leaning in just a few months' time. If everything goes according to plan, I could easily see Cempra's stock soaring higher from here.

Zika virus battles, and beyond

Cory Renauer: Developing an effective vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection could take years. In the meantime, efforts to cull populations of the infamous Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads Zika, dengue, and several other life-threatening viruses, may get a boost from Intrexon.

The bioengineering conglomerate's operations haven't turned a profit yet, but last September it made a bold $146.4 million acquisition of Oxitec and its genetically engineered self-limiting mosquito technology. Oxitec breeds genetically modified male mosquitoes that mate with wild females, producing offspring that cannot survive to adulthood.

It almost sounds too easy, but data from a pilot program in the city of Piracicaba, Brazil, are highly encouraging. In the first year of the program, the number of reported dengue infections fell to just five, from 130 in the previous year. The study is expanding to a larger population in Brazil, but in an interview with Motley Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko, Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry explained that some regulatory barriers could hinder its widespread adoption in the U.S. and beyond.

Luckily, the program's early success in Brazil hasn't gone unnoticed by legislators in Florida, or by the World Health Organization (WHO). Recently, 61 Florida House members urged the U.S. government to implement an Emergency Use Authorization, to allow Florida's state and local governments to use Oxitec's trademarked "Friendly" Aedes mosquitoes -- sooner rather than later. About a week earlier the WHO recommended that public officials in Zika-prone areas consider pilot programs similar to those underway in Brazil.

With hundreds of millions of people around the globe at risk of contracting Aedes-associated diseases, Intrexon's bold bet on Oxitec could generate an important revenue stream for the company and its shareholders in the years ahead.

Bioelectronic medicine: bizarre but possible

George Budwell: GlaxoSmithKline made its mark in biopharma by developing relatively "safe" medicines for respiratory ailments, and by building a modest footprint in the pragmatic vaccine space. However, the British biopharma recently decided to depart from its traditional approach to product development, by announcing a bold joint venture withVerily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences) to create the first generation of bioelectronic medicines for chronic diseases. The point of this joint venture is to develop tiny implantable devices to correct irregular impulses associated with diseases such as arthritis, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes.

While this moonshot effort is still in its infancy -- and there's a lot of work to be done in order to create devices small enough to be safely implanted along individual nerve fibers -- this foray into bioelectronic medicine is well worth checking out, due to the high-dollar indications Glaxo and Alphabet are pursuing. The arthritis, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes markets have all generated drugs with sales in excess of $5 billion, and in some cases, over $10 billion. Moreover, bioelectronic medicine could turn out to be a disruptive technology, transforming Glaxo into an industry leader overnight -- that is, if this effort pans out.

Glaxo's exciting, yet speculative, dive into the field of bioelectronic medicine shouldn't be a primary reason to buy its stock, but this moonshot is definitely worth keeping tabs on.

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Brian Feroldi has no position in any stocks mentioned. Cory Renauer has no position in any stocks mentioned. George Budwell has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.