Small biotech firm grows by acquisitionOne of the state's...


January 19, 1993|By Liz Bowie

Small biotech firm grows by acquisition

One of the state's tiniest biotechnology companies grew dramatically last week when it bought NovaScreen, a subsidiary of Scios Nova Inc.

The deal between Adheron Inc. of College Park and Scios Nova of Mountain View, Calif., will give the young biotech company, which had no products and only a few employees, $1.7 million in annual revenues and about 15 new employees. One key element of the deal: a three-year, $4.3 million contract from the National Institute of Mental Health, won last July.

Details of the stock-and-cash NovaScreen deal were not disclosed, but it should help Adheron. Four-year-old Adheron was founded to commercialize an adhesive substance used by oysters to allow their young to adhere to shells. The company wants to make an adhesive that could be used under water.

NovaScreen was started in 1985 by Nova Pharmaceutical Inc. of Baltimore when it got a contract with Eastman Kodak to analyze thousands of compounds from Kodak's vast chemical library.

Nova developed a system that uses robots to quickly screen thousands of compounds for any possible therapeutic use. The robots can work 24 hours a day doing the most tedious work, while a limited staff handles the more challenging aspects of the analysis.

Because many other companies and institutions wanted the same capacity, Nova Pharmaceutical, now called Scios Nova, has turned a profit by selling the service.

Adheron wanted the screening system because it had recently licensed a collection of marine bacteria and enzymes from the University of Maryland. Some of the enzymes can survive in extreme temperatures and might be valuable for industrial uses.

There's more good news about the purchase: NovaScreen will stay in Baltimore rather than move outside the state.

The sale also may help deflect criticism of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute. Some in the business community say the institute has not been an effective economic development tool. They note that although the institute's research had sparked several tiny companies, none has had a big impact yet.

Adheron was the first company formed from MBI research, in this case research on oysters at the Center of Marine Biotechnology.

Univax to begin work on HIV antibody

The Food and Drug Administration has given Univax Biologics Inc. of Rockville permission to begin inoculating healthy volunteers with Genentech Inc.'s gp120 HIV vaccine and then extracting their plasma to develop a new product.

Univax Biologics is trying to develop a polyclonal antibody that could be given to health-careworkers, AIDS babies or others who need immediate, short-term protection against the human immunodeficiency virus. In addition, the product might be used as a therapeutic treatment for AIDS patients, to help slow the disease's progress.

After the volunteers have been inoculated, they will donate blood to Univax. Assuming the volunteers develop antibodies to HIV, Univax will then turn those antibodies into the polyclonal antibody product.

The companies plan to begin inoculating volunteers in the next two weeks. San Francisco-based Genentech is beginning the second phase of tests on its vaccine, but is still years from applying for approval to use the vaccine. Meanwhile, dozens of companies and universities are working on different AIDS vaccines. Harvard University researchers recently reported success with a live, attenuated vaccine in monkeys.

But even if Genentech's vaccine does not prove effective in providing lifelong protection against the AIDS virus, the Univax product could be successful. It is only intended to provide immunity for several weeks.

Alpha Therapeutic,Univax in dispute

While Univax is moving ahead with its HIV product, it said late last week that it wants to break off its collaboration on a drug for adult sepsis with Alpha Therapeutic Corp.

Univax says Alpha has not made regular payments to the company for development of the polyclonal antibody and owes it $674,000 in back payments. Univax wants the license and distribution rights back and reimbursement of $3 million in excess research and development costs.

In November 1990, Alpha and Univax entered into an agreement that gave Alpha marketing and distribution rights to a sepsis product that was developed in exchange for regular payments.

Los Angeles-based Alpha said it wants the matter to go to arbitration and contends that Univax owes it $2.6 million.

Univax said its work on a drug for adult sepsis, a bacterial infection that can be deadly, is continuing. "It hasn't slowed our progress," said Iris Kesterman, a company spokeswoman. But the company intends to seek another partner to help fund the project.

Tapping the energy in expressway gusts

Here's the latest enviro-tech product idea: "vehilectrical" power cells.

These cells, designed by a Michigan man, would use wind currents created by cars on expressways to generate electricity.

The wind would turn rotors, powering generators to produce electricity. Put on highway medians, the cells would produce energy without creating any pollution, the inventors claim. There is a patent pending on the cells, but so far no one is planning to try them.

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