West Coast Editor

Having collaborated in a strategic alliance last year to develop antibody therapeutics, Absalus Inc. and the Australian firm EvoGenix Pty. Ltd. turned the relationship into a marriage, merging in a deal valued at about $8 million in stock.

Antibodies are "coming back, big-time," said Steffen Nock, president of Mountain View, Calif.-based Absalus, despite recent problems with Tysabri (natalizumab), the multiple sclerosis drug from Biogen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., and Elan Corp. plc, of Dublin, Ireland. (See BioWorld Today, April 1, 2005.)

Nock will continue to direct operations of the expanded EvoGenix and will join the board. EvoGenix will keep most of the research and development work in its Melbourne labs - headquarters are in Sydney - using Absalus' presence in the U.S. to boost involvement here.

EvoGenix, with 15 or 16 employees, began in 2001 and Absalus, with five, started in 2003, Nock said, and both are at the preclinical stage.

Absalus deploys what it calls Superhumanization, which the company says allows for even fewer non-human remnants than drugs created using the standard humanization technology, thus making multiple doses feasible. Patents were licensed from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle about 18 months ago.

Nock distinguished Absalus from antibody firms such as Fremont, Calif.-based Abgenix Inc. and Medarex Inc., of Princeton, N.J.

"Basically, they [use] mice, which have a human immune system," he said. "The starting point for us is a validated murine antibody, and then we change the sequence based on certain algorithms to make them humanized." The firm also has an "antibody arming" platform called ApoptoMab.

Drug candidates include HepaMab, which targets hepatocellular carcinoma, with safety and efficacy proved in more than 100 patients, and LeukoMab for leukemia. Which might enter the clinic first is "the thousand-dollar question," Nock said. "I can't really tell at this point."

EvoGenix has in development its Evibody technology, "Evibodies," small human proteins offering a stable framework for display of variable surface loops of amino acids, which the company plans to develop against solid tumors. For protein optimization, the company uses what it calls EvoGene, conducting RNA-directed mutation of sequences coding for the protein of interest, followed by screening and selection of the variants with the best profiles.

Late last year, EvoGenix licensed from Micromet AG, of Munich, Germany, some of the patents in single-chain antibodies the latter holds jointly with Enzon Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Bridgewater, N.J.