Nova to market uses of Hopkins research

March 16, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

Nova Pharmaceutical Corp. said yesterday that it has won exclusive rights to commercialize key applications of path-breaking brain cell research done at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and excited investors pushed the value of the Baltimore-based biotechnology company's stock more than 58 percent higher by day's end.

A civic leader praised the deal as a milestone in the transfer of locally developed technology into the commercial sector, an area where Maryland has lagged behind other states with ambitions in the biotechnology industry. But a Nova spokeswoman warned that it could be years before the new licensing deal makes the company a lot of money.

"We're not looking at near-term revenues whatsoever," said Kira Bacon, the Nova spokeswoman. "People in biotechnology have learned that it's risky to predict the time from an exciting discovery to a marketable product. It isn't one step from a scientific concept to a product."

The agreement between Johns Hopkins and Nova is based on work by Hopkins scientists. Scientists led by Dr. Solomon Snyder, a co-founder of Nova and chairman of its scientific advisory board, said last year that they had induced human brain cells to reproduce themselves and grow more brain tissue in a laboratory.

The cells, called cortical neuronal brain cells, were grown from a sample taken from an 18-month-old girl during surgery to correct seizures.

Getting brain cells to multiply and grow in a lab was a first in the history of brain research, because human brain tissue normally doesn't grow. "You're born with all the neurons you'll ever have," said Seema Kumar, a spokeswoman for Hopkins.

Ms. Kumar said cortical cells, taken from the cortex of the brain, are responsible for higher mental functions.

Researchers who have done experimental surgery using brain tissue grown at Hopkins say that surgically implanting the cells may help doctors treat patients with debilitating brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease.

Johns Hopkins is offering some uses of the brain cell breakthrough exclusively to Nova, but any researcher from a corporation, a government agency or non-profit laboratory may obtain samples of the brain cell lines developed at Hopkins in other research.

Nova will have exclusive rights to use the brain cell tissues to test drugs that other companies are developing, said Francis J. Meyer, assistant dean for technology licensing at the medical school. He said Nova's service could help other companies speed up the refinement of drugs that are already under development.

Ms. Bacon said that Nova could be ready to offer those services in one or two years. Nova also will have an exclusive license to develop possibilities for using the cells as a treatment product in brain-cell transplants, Hopkins' announcement said.

Nova also will be attempting to use the tissue to develop drugs for central nervous system disorders, but Ms. Bacon wouldn't predict how long it might take to develop the drugs.

Any company will be free to use the tissue samples to test its own development-stage drugs, but only Nova may offer the service to other companies, Dr. Meyer said.

Samples of the brain tissue have been given to 145 government and university laboratories to help in basic research, Ms. Kumar said.

Neither Hopkins nor Nova would disclose how much money the school would get from the agreement.

Dr. Meyer said the exclusive licenses to Nova will be effective for the duration of patents that have not yet been granted, or 17 years from the time the patents are approved.

Thomas J. Chmura, deputy director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the announcement was a good sign for Maryland's biotechnology industry.

"We don't get as much economic benefit if it's licensed to a company in Chicago," Mr. Chmura said. "This is the best of all possible worlds -- they're transferring the technology right in their backyard."

Dr. Meyer said that Dr. Snyder's affiliation with Nova didn't play an "integral" role in the school's decision to award the licensing agreement to the firm.

He said that Nova's location in Baltimore played a secondary role in the school's decision.

In over-the-counter trading, Nova stock closed yesterday at $5.75, up from $3.625.

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