Columbia firm licenses genetic technologyWhat do male...

LIFE SCIENCES

January 12, 1993|By Liz Bowie

Columbia firm licenses genetic technology

What do male baldness, acne and mustaches on women have in common? An enzyme called 5 alpha-reducase -- at least that's what Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. is betting on. The young New York pharmaceutical company has just licensed an antisense technology related to the enzyme from Genetic Medisyn Corp., a privately held company in Columbia.

Medicis said last week that it also has obtained an option to purchase 75 percent of Genetic Medisyn from its parent company, Synthecell Corp. of Columbia.

Research on products to treat dermatologic problems, including male baldness, acne and excessive hair growth in women, will continue in the Columbia laboratories. Antisense technology is aimed at blocking a particular gene from producing an enzyme.

But Medicis has agreed to pump an undisclosed amount of money into the company to pay for the entire research and development of the products.

"We needed a partner who could come in and realize our goals," said John Byington, general counsel to Genetic Medisyn and president of Synthecell/Vega Biomolecules, a sister company.

In return, Genetic Medisyn, which has 10 employees and no products on the market yet, will receive royalties on any products that reach the market.

Calgene seeks FDA OK for altered tomato

Fifteen hundred chefs, Jeremy Rifkin and a threatened boycott have proved too much for Calgene Inc. The company, bowing to pressure from critics, has decided to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for its new genetically engineered tomato, which is designed to ripen slowly.

Critics had suggested that the Flavr Savr tomato -- which probably will be the first genetically engineered food to hit the supermarkets -- hadn't been through a complete review by the federal agency.

Legally, Calgene doesn't need FDA approval for the genes that are being inserted. In a ruling last year, the FDA said it wouldn't treat genetically engineered foods any differently than other foods it regulates. But the company decided to try to blunt public concern by asking the FDA to approve the gene as a food additive.

Critics believe that bioengineered foods could present serious risks. For instance, they're concerned about the release of a novel organism into the environment. And they fear that a marker gene also being inserted may make people who consume the tomato resistant to one type of antibiotic.

"We are particularly concerned about the unknown implications of beginning to consume foods . . . that are resistant to an important human medicine," said Ted Howard, director of the Pure Food Campaign, which is part of Jeremy Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends.

The debate prompted 1,500 chefs to sign a petition and members of the food industry to threaten a product boycott.

The Flavr Savr will be marketed in stores by Calgene Fresh Inc., and Campbell Soup Co. has the rights to use it in processed forms. Campbell, which has invested in the Flavr Savr's development, said last week that there were no plans to use it until it receives approval.

FDA approval "is a way of giving tangible assurance to consumers that the products are safe," said Tom Churchwell, president of Calgene Fresh. Because Calgene Fresh was unsure until last year what regulatory process the tomato would face, it has been submitting data on safety to the agency for the past three years, he said.

Calgene also plans to label the tomato.

Even if the FDA approval comes through, as Calgene expects, Mr. Howard said the issue of genetically engineered foods won't go away easily. The FDA decision to review Calgene's tomato "throws into question what is the food policy" of the nation. His group wants a more thorough review of all genetically engineered foods.

In a related development, DNA Plant Technology Corp. said yesterday that it has found a way to genetically engineer a tomato without the safety issues that critics have raised over Calgene's Flavr Savr. The company said its genetic marker doesn't involve antibiotics.

Both companies are creating new varieties of vegetables and fruits by splicing genes with certain traits into normal varieties.

Bethesda firm donates to Md. marine center

Researchers at the Maryland Center of Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore recently got a small but valuable gift that will give them computer access to a range of current periodicals and reference information, including more than 400,000 scientific papers.

The gift subscription, worth more than $6,000, came from Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, a Bethesda publisher of marine science information.

"This is like a godsend, because it means we can tell what anyone is doing [in the field]," said Dr. Allen R. Place, an associate professor at COMB.

Two biotech industry trade groups to merge

Two trade organizations representing the biotechnology industry will soon merge into the Biotechnology Industry Organiza- tion. The trade group will represent about 300 biotech companies and 60 biotech centers in the United States and will be based in Washington.

The merger was designed to give the industry groups -- the Association of Biotechnology Companies and the Industrial Biotechnology Association -- a stronger voice for the new administration.

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