OncorMed lands screening deal It will conduct p53 testing of cancer patients


September 17, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

OncorMed Inc. said yesterday that it has landed a deal to provide genetic screening in one of the most advanced efforts yet to correct a genetic defect that is considered a leading trigger for the spread of cancer.

Gaithersburg-based OncorMed, which provides genetic testing services, will gather a broad range of genetic information on patients with untreatable head and neck cancer being enrolled in a trial to correct what's known as the p53 gene.

RPR Gencell, a division of pharmaceutical giant Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, and Introgen Therapeutics Inc., an Austin, Texas-based biotechnology company, are jointly sponsoring the trial.

They plan to analyze the information to see how genetic traits influence p53 gene treatment, said John Abrams, a spokesman for Rhone-Poulenc Rorer.

Dr. Leslie Alexandre, vice president for corporate affairs at OncorMed, said, "This is further validation for including genetic information as an important part of gene therapy trials."

Alexandre declined to disclose how much the deal with Rhone-Poulenc Rorer is worth, but said it was seen by OncorMed as a big boost.

The publicly held company lost $7.5 million on $600,000 in revenue in 1996. Collegeville, Pa.-based Rhone-Poulenc Rorer earned $473.5 million on $5.4 billion in revenue last year.

It has under way a major research effort into gene therapy. "This is our first deal with a major pharmaceutical company on a cancer related trial. So for us, it's a major step forward," said Alexandre.

Among the information OncorMed will gather is which patients have a defective p53 gene, and what happens to the gene after treatment, said Abrams.

About 80 patients are being enrolled in the trials nationwide and will receive a gene therapy treatment that has been shown in laboratory and small human studies to result in tumor regression.

RPR Gencell and Introgen plan to jointly launch the human trials using Introgen's gene therapy product to correct p53 gene defects.

The companies have a $50 million agreement to co-develop and market a p53 gene therapy treatment for cancer.

Mutations of the p53 gene are the most common genetic defect found in human cancers. Medical researchers have found that the p53 gene operates as a watchdog against cancerous cell growth. However, if the gene is defective, it loses its tumor

suppressing ability, and cells divide out of control.

Like other biotechnology companies attempting to develop treatments to repair or replace the p53 defect, RPR and Introgen plan to load healthy p53 genes into a common virus that causes colds but has been disabled.

The viruses will then be injected into tumors.

Abrams said RPR Gencell and Introgen were not disclosing which hospitals or clinics had signed on to treat and monitor patients in the study.

Introgen said it plans to launch smaller human trials of the p53 gene therapy treatment in Europe and Japan next year. OncorMed said it will provide patient testing for those trials as well.

OncorMed also has a contract with Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Richmond, Calif., to gather genetic information on cancer patients being treated with its experimental p53 gene therapy, said Alexandre.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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