What's #trending in pharma on social media? Investors are listening to find out

Pharma's social media evangelists have been urging companies to lend an ear to the chatter on Twitter, Facebook, patient forums, physician networking sites and the like. It's a way to engage with patients, monitor doctors' opinions, tailor marketing and spot safety concerns, they say.

Now, there's a new reason. Pharma investors are already doing it.

As Bloomberg reports, one of the companies that's mining social media for drug-related conversations is packaging that data for investors. That's Treato, which sends fund managers regular reports that flag trends--on side effects, prescribing patterns, and so on.

Want an example? One Israeli hedge fund investor was interested in potential off-label prescribing on Xtandi, the prostate cancer drug marketed by Astellas and Medivation ($MDVN). This was before Xtandi won FDA approval to treat patients before any chemotherapy--a green light that happened last month--and Adamas Healthcare's Ofir Levi figured physicians might already be using it for those patients.

Given that the pre-chemo market in prostate cancer is much bigger than the post-chemo population Xtandi was approved to target, significant off-label use could signal bigger sales growth than investors had thought. Treato's data seemed to show just that: "By looking at patient discussions, we figured that pre-chemo patients were also getting this drug," Levi told the news service.

And bingo, Xtandi sales grew faster than expected. Medivation hiked its guidance for full-year sales, pushing shares up as much as 8%, Bloomberg says.

The enthusiasm isn't shared across the board. Some investors doubt the value of such data; patients' opinions don't necessarily lead to stock movements. But the Big Data approach to pharma investing is just beginning, Esquared Asset Management portfolio manager Les Funtleyder told Bloomberg. "If it's proven you can actually make better investment decisions by using this, investors will flock to it," he said, going on to add that data mining is "where I see the world going as far as investing is concerned."

Treato's primary target audience is drugmakers, however, and some top companies have signed on. Others have brought in data-miners to collect info themselves, such as GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), whose vaccines division monitored parenting websites for attitudes about childhood shots.

Several Big Pharmas have partnered up with a competitor, PatientsLikeMe, including Merck ($MRK), which signed up to collect info on psoriasis patients. Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech unit in April tapped PatientsLikeMe to help research patients' real-world experiences with diseases and treatment.

On its own, the patient-forum provider has released reports on patients' experiences--good and bad--with treatments in several different therapeutic categories, including multiple sclerosis.

Meanwhile, another patient-tapping company is using Google surveys to collect specific information on various drugs. It's already posting comparative info on its website, Iodine.com.

- see the Bloomberg piece

Special Reports: Top 10 pharma companies in social media - Merck