In a deal potentially worth more than $23 million, CombinatoRx Inc. licensed its dual-action cancer drug, CRx-026, to Taiwan-based firm HenKan Pharmaceutical Co. for development and commercialization in three Asian countries.

The agreement calls for HenKan to gain exclusive rights to CRx-026 in Taiwan, China and South Korea, in exchange for an up-front fee of $500,000, as well as up to $23 million in development and commercial milestone payments and royalties. HenKan also agreed to fund additional Phase II trials in cancer indications in certain Asian markets.

Boston-based CombinatoRx, which filed a registration statement for its initial public offering in December, said it could not comment on the deal with HenKan due to SEC restrictions.

CRx-026, in Phase I/II trials in patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed prior treatments, was selected using CombinatoRx's discovery technology, Combination High-Throughput Screening (cHTS) system, designed to identify drugs through a cocktail approach. The technology is able to identify possible combinations of approved drugs that can attack diseases synergistically.

With CRx-026, the company has combined a chlorpromazine, a sedative known for treating psychotic disorders, with pentamidine, an anti-parasitic agent. Neither of those drugs is indicated as a treatment for cancer, but preclinical studies showed that, when combined, the compounds appeared to block cancer cell proliferation by inhibiting mitotic kinesin, hsEg5KSP, and the PRL phosphates.

In addition to cancer, CombinatoRx has six clinical-stage and several preclinical products in the area of immuno-inflammatory diseases, targeting asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis. The company also is advancing preclinical candidates for metabolic diseases.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded the company a $4.4 million grant in April to discover a combination of approved small-molecule drugs that can interact to block the effect of anthrax. In February, CombinatoRx agreed to collaborate with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., of Basel, Switzerland, to use its cHTS technology to test combinations of compounds provided by Novartis. The agreement included a $100,000 payment to CombinatoRx and the opportunity to receive an additional $400,000.

As of March 2004, the company had raised about $90 million in venture capital. In December of that year, CombinatoRx filed an IPO registration, initially seeking $100 million, though that figure was revised a few months later when it announced a price range of $10 to $12 per share for the sale of 6 million shares. At the top end, the offering would total $72 million. (See BioWorld Today, March 7, 2005.)

Geron's Stock Rises On Merck Deal

Geron Corp. entered a collaboration with Merck & Co. Inc. to develop a vaccine targeting telomerase, and stands to receive undisclosed up-front, milestone and royalty payments.

Shares of Geron rose 26.6 percent Monday following news that it will collaborate with Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck to develop a cancer vaccine targeting telomerase.

Geron's stock (NASDAQ:GERN) closed at $10.89 Monday, up $2.29.

The agreement intends to combine Geron's work in telomerase with Merck's vaccine technologies. Though specific terms were not disclosed, Geron expects an up-front payment, and stands to receive potential milestone payments based on certain development achievements and royalties. Under the agreement, Merck also agreed to make an undisclosed equity investment in Geron as part of the company's next financing round.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company already has two cancer products in the clinic that target telomerase, an enzyme that is active in most cancer cells and allows those cells to metastasize. GRN163L recently received FDA clearance to begin testing in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, while GRNVAC1, a dendritic cell-based telomerase vaccine, is in Phase I/II trials at Duke University Medical Center in prostate cancer patients. Results of the first completed study at Duke showed that the vaccine was well tolerated, and that it generated telomerase specific T-cell responses in 19 of 20 subjects.

As part of its agreement with Geron, Merck also acquired an exclusive option to license GRNVAC1. Geron would be entitled to an option payment from the pharmaceutical giant, though the specifics of any agreement would be determined later.

Geron, which also focuses on products that activate telomerase to treat injuries or degenerative diseases and cell-based therapies derived from human embryonic stem cells to treat chronic diseases, reported a net loss for the first quarter of $9.7 million. As of March 31, the company's cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities totaled about $125 million.

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