By Karen Pihl-Carey

Staff Writer

In a deal that could mean $100 million or more plus royalties for Abgenix Inc., the company signed an agreement to provide Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. access to its XenoMouse technology to create an unlimited number of fully human antibodies.

“We’re excited about the deal. We think that Millennium is a very good company to be in collaboration with,” said Kurt Leutzinger, chief financial officer of Abgenix. “We think that they are doing the right thing by adding biological analysis to their targets in order to sift through all the genomics information to come up with high-quality targets for therapy. And so it’s going to be exciting working with a company like that.”

Abgenix, of Fremont, Calif., expects to receive an undisclosed up-front payment within the next few weeks. Millennium, in return, will receive a set of licenses for the technology to use for research purposes and to generate product candidates for worldwide commercial use. The company will make a second payment within two years for another group of licenses, and possibly a third payment or more for additional groups of licenses, as long as it achieves certain milestones. Millennium, of Cambridge, Mass., will receive an undisclosed number of commercial licenses, and will not have to make milestone payments. The company also will pay Abgenix royalties in the range of “middle-single digits,” Leutzinger said, for any marketed products resulting from the agreement.

Abgenix estimated it will receive at least $100 million, consisting of the up-front payment and future license payments. For Millennium, the deal means a stronger stance in which to conduct research and accelerate its antibody programs.

“We see this as another major step in rounding out what we think is the most extensive tool kit of monoclonal-based technologies and matching that with Millennium’s platform-based targets,” said Christopher Mirabelli, president of pharmaceutical research and development at Millennium. “We think that puts us in a very enviable place.”

Mirabelli said it’s difficult to say how many targets the agreement involves. “One of the elements of this agreement is it gives us broad access,” he told BioWorld Today. “So over time, we expect to use this technology to generate antibodies to multiple targets. So there really is no limit to targets.”

Abgenix has established alliances with not only Millennium, but also two other leading genomics companies, Curagen Corp., of New Haven, Conn., and Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGS), of Rockville, Md. The Curagen collaboration aims to identify up to 120 fully human antibody drug candidates to fight cancer and autoimmune disorders, among other illnesses. The agreement with HGS seeks to identify new product candidates based on targets in the HGS genome database. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 10, 1999, p. 1; and Dec. 2, 1999, p. 1.)

All three alliances could potentially cover more than 200 product candidates, a conservative estimate. Said Leutzinger: “The number of product candidates that could emerge from the Millennium deal and the Curagen deal can, by themselves, be in excess of that number.”

The Millennium deal is unique, Leutzinger said, because it does not involve development milestones or any risk for Abgenix.

“We will not be generating the product candidate ourselves,” he said. “We will be turning over to them a colony of mice so they can do this for themselves, which reduces our cost. With Curagen, we would be generating the antibodies to the antigens that they provide for us.”

The agreement between Millennium and Abgenix is an extension to a 1998 agreement in which Millennium’s subsidiary, BioTherapeutics Inc. (Mbio), agreed to use the XenoMouse technology to develop two antibody drug candidates toward targets discovered by MBio. Millennium has since acquired the majority-owned subsidiary in a deal that closed in December.

Mirabelli said Millennium expects to move multiple antibodies into the clinic within the next two years, and that those antibodies will complement the ones already in development.

“This is one more important addition to the toolbox that Millennium has available to it as we now take our antibody therapeutic pipeline forward,” he said.

Millennium’s Campath, a monoclonal antibody, is under regulatory review as a treatment for advanced B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia that is refractory to existing therapies. Millennium expects to launch it later this year.

Millennium acquired the rights to Campath when it purchased LeukoSite Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., in a stock-for-stock deal valued at about $635 million. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 15, 1999, p. 1.)

Among the other antibody drugs in the advanced stages of clinical trials that were acquired from LeukoSite are LDP-02, which is in a Phase II trial for Crohn’s disease, and LDP-01, which is in a Phase II trial for stroke.

“We have a number of antibodies – we haven’t disclosed what areas those are in – but a number in various levels of preclinical pharmacology and safety studies,” Mirabelli said. He expects the company will identify one or two of the antibodies to bring into the clinic within the next year.

Millennium’s stock (NASDAQ:MLNM) closed Tuesday at $243, down $22.625. Abgenix’s stock (NASDAQ:ABGX) closed at $352.81, up $33.81, or 10.6 percent.