Gallo and Co. land a paying collaborator Hybridon signs on with Institute of Human Virology

Mutual undertakings

One of the goals is to develop anti-HIV drugs

May 02, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

A Massachusetts biotechnology company yesterday became the first corporation to strike a business arrangement with the Institute of Human Virology, the new research institute in Baltimore headed up by Dr. Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of the AIDS virus.

Hybridon Inc., a Cambridge-based firm that went public last year, said it has struck a five-year research-collaboration agreement with the institute.

Funded with millions in state and city money, the institute opened to much fanfare -- and expectation -- late last year.

Hybridon will pay the institute $250,000 in the first and second years of the deal and $300,000 in the third year of the collaboration, said Jennifer Schorr, a spokeswoman for the institute.

Terms for the last two years of the deal are negotiable, depending on how well the research is proceeding, said Schorr.

Under the arrangement, Hybridon and the institute, which is a part of the University of Maryland, will work on a pioneering field of medical research called antisense therapy.

The technique involves using fragments of nucleic acid, a building block of DNA, to block the signals that cells send one another to replicate uncontrollably -- which occurs in cancer or with the AIDS virus.

Hybridon, which lost $46.9 million last year, is focused exclusively on developing drugs and other therapies based on blocking this signaling process. The company has three drugs in human clinical studies.

The company, said Charles R. Hogen Jr., vice president for corporate communications, is looking forward to a fruitful relationship with the institute.

"There is already a lot of respect and trust between us, which is a good way to begin a relationship," he said.

Gallo and Hybridon's founder, Dr. Paul Zamecnik, are well known to one another. Zamecnik collaborated with Gallo on early anti-sense research at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda in the early 1980s.

"Now that Hybridon has matured as a company and Dr. Gallo has his own research institute, it is to our mutual advantage to continue our longstanding collaboration," Zamecnik said in a prepared statement.

Hogen said Hybridon and institute scientists will focus heavily on trying to develop drugs that block the HIV virus from infecting new cells and on developing a therapy for controlling a specific herpes virus that deters bone marrow growth in people whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer radiation patients, people with AIDS and people who have received transplants.

A focus of the research effort will be on a specific type of protein, called chemokine receptors, inside white blood cells whose job it is to attack bad microbes.

Dr. Marv Reitz, associate director for the institute's division of basic sciences, said institute scientists have found that the HIV virus favors several of these chemokine receptors as a sort of doorway inside white blood cells. Once inside, the virus replicates and works its destruction.

One doorway, called the CCR-5 receptor, is particularly favored by the virus, said Reitz. Furthermore, scientists have found that a very small segment of the population lack this receptor. When exposed to the HIV virus, they do not get AIDS. The Hybridon collaboration will probably focus heavily on the CCR-5 receptor and looking for ways to block the HIV virus from using this and other doorway receptors, said Reitz.

"Antisense has been around for years, but I guess this collaboration shows it's growing up fast," said Reitz. Indeed, a number of major pharmaceutical firms in recent years have invested millions in deals with biotechnology companies working develop anti-sense drugs, including the world's largest drugmaker, Novartis. The technology is thought to have promise in a number of disease fields.

Hybridon itself has research and licensing deals with Roche Holdings Ltd. and Searle Pharmaceutical.

Pub Date: 5/02/97

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