One of best selling biotechnology drugs, Amgen Inc.'s Epogen, is a growth hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells in people with anemia. Analysts expect it to generate more than $1.5 billion in sales this year.
Several other growth factor drugs are being tested in humans, including one developed by Human Genome, which is aimed at speeding wound healing. The company, which has been shifting its focus from genomic research to developing drugs from its gene bank, has no approved drugs on the market.
Company scientists say they were aware they had made an important breakthrough.
"It was pure excitement when we realized that we'd finally found what we'd been searching for," said David Hilbert, section head for the cell biology team at Human Genome Sciences. He headed the research effort with Paul Moore, a senior scientist and molecular biologist.
"I'll admit there were a lot of sleepless nights. We were essentially looking for a needle in a haystack," Hilbert said.
The scientists said no toxic side effects have been detected in studies using a purified, man-made form of the protein in mice.
Fauci at NIAID said the Human Genome team's discovery is impressive because it pinpointed a protein that triggers production only of B cells.
"This is a highly specific growth factor for B cells. There are lots of growth factors," he said.
"The problem we've been faced with is that many are nonspecific, meaning they may induce the growth of other cells that aren't wanted," Fauci said.
"It's really extraordinary what they've done."
Pub Date: 7/09/99