BioWorld International Correspondent

Norwegian firm Inovio AS secured a US$2 million U.S. Army deal to further develop its gene delivery technology, Elgen, which relies on the introduction to muscle cells of bacterial plasmid DNA using a proprietary electroporation method.

The cash, together with a March financing round that yielded NOK18 million (US$2.5 million), will fund the Oslo-based company's operations through 2004, CEO and co-founder Iacob Mathiesen told BioWorld International.

Inovio officials now will sit down with Army representatives and agree on details of the collaboration, he said. An immediate priority is to scale up the technology. It already has been used successfully in studies on mice and rabbits, but additional development of the company's prototype system will be needed before it can be applied to larger mammals and, eventually, to human subjects.

"I hope that within the next year there will be a chance to do human trials," Mathiesen said. "It's a bit hard [right now] to say who and when and where."

Inovio's method is based on the use of high-frequency, low-voltage electrical pulses to boost cells' ability to take up and express naked DNA. It stems from Mathiesen's Ph.D. work under the supervision of Terje L mo at the University of Oslo. The duo set up the company in 1999 in order to commercialize the technology. "We have the key patent position when it comes to electroporation of muscles," Mathiesen said.

Elgen employs standard bacterial plasmids, carrying a gene of interest under the control of a eukaryotic promoter. Unlike viral vectors, the DNA does not become incorporated into the cells' chromosomes.

"We don't have any evidence that they do integrate," Mathiesen said. And because muscle cells do not divide, the plasmids are retained. The company has obtained data indicating stable genetic expression for more than a year. It can be used for multiple applications, such as gene therapy, vaccination and delivery of monoclonal antibodies. "I think that's what caught the attention of the Army," Mathiesen said.

Inovio has one licensee, Aldevron Inc., of Fargo, N.D., which is using Elgen in its research services business. Two large pharmaceutical firms, Aventis SA, of Strasbourg, France, and Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, of Ingelheim, Germany, were early licensees, but have since terminated their involvement following their respective withdrawals from gene therapy and DNA vaccination.

Inovio aims eventually to build up its own product pipeline by partnering with companies that have genes with therapeutic potential. But in the short term it is concentrating on enhancing the delivery technology. "Our key focus now is developing the platform to such a level where we can take it confidently into human trials," Mathiesen said.

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