West Coast Editor

On the heels of word regarding possible new state initiatives that would boost stem cell firms' shares, antisense company AVI Biopharma Inc. got a piece of the action by disclosing the issuance of one patent and notice of allowance on another in the field.

Portland, Ore.-based AVI's shares (NASDAQ:AVII) closed Wednesday at $4.14, up $2.10, or 103 percent.

"We're not by any means trying to communicate that we've become a stem cell company," said Michael Hubbard, director of investor relations for AVI. "This just happens to be a gene we could target." Just the same, Hubbard noted that he was "amazed" but "delighted" at the stock's performance.

The patents cover use of antisense to modulate stem cell maturation. AVI's third-generation Neugene antisense agents, which target transforming growth factor-beta and others, have been shown to program stem cells in culture for long-term survival after they are implanted.

"We've been validating this all along, whether the area's been cardiovascular or infectious diseases," Hubbard said, noting that all stem cell work is preclinical. "This is just another slice of a very big pie."

Neugene most recently made news as a result of the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research to examine the effect of AVI's antisense agents against dengue and other flavivirus infections. But as long ago as 2001, collaborative work with the National Cancer Institute and University of Washington pioneer Steve Bartelmez showed the approach works with bone marrow stem cells, which often are transplanted into patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.

Stem cells are in low supply in those patients and can be expanded in the lab, but with some difficulty, which means transplants are risky. Neugene might help researchers get around that and, "in essence, create a stem cell bank," Hubbard said.

A handful of stem cell firms gained ground Tuesday when lawmakers in New York and New Jersey made known their consideration of $1 billion and $380 million in funding, respectively, for the research, apparently following the lead of California, where voters in November approved a $3 billion bond offering. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 4, 2004.)

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Aastrom Biosciences Inc. (NASDAQ:ASTM) rose 24 percent Tuesday to close at $3.35. Geron Corp., of Menlo Park, Calif., (NASDAQ:GERN) ended at $9.17, up 7.25 percent. Stem Cells Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., (NASDAQ:STEM) closed at $5.99, up 14.3 percent. U.S. BioDefense Inc., of Fullerton, Calif., (OTC BB:UBDF) ended Tuesday at $30, up 5 percent.

Two of those made further gains Wednesday. Aastrom closed at $4.05, up 70 cents, or 21 percent, while Stem Cells ended at $6.26, up 27 cents, or 4.5 percent.

Did AVI benefit also?

"I think that's a reasonable premise," Hubbard said. "Certainly, there's never one cause for anything."

The words "patent" and "stem cells" are "obviously going to hit some nerves - we hope the better nerves," Hubbard told BioWorld Today, adding that he was disappointed about the response to developments a year ago with the firm's antisense work in transplant rejection.

"We've got a lot of other follow-up [research] that I hope will continue to drive home the validity of the approach," he said, and conceded that the firm is "well aware of how antisense has gotten some black eyes." AVI has "dropped back and reinvented the area," even if "Wall Street doesn't necessarily hang around for fine tuning of technology," Hubbard said, pointing to monoclonal antibodies that "needed considerable tweaking" as an example

"When we developed our compound very rapidly against SARS, there was an enormous reaction to it," he recalled. "But when SARS never really developed into a pandemic, I realized [many investors] never even looked at the company," but bought stock solely on the basis of SARS. (See BioWorld Today, May 7, 2003.)

"They didn't realize what we had going," Hubbard said. "Those are always scary people."

Following the stem cell news, though, he took a flood of calls and determined that "people have a pretty good grasp of what this means." The success of antisense, Hubbard said, "is coming. It's just a matter of time."

No Comments