To complement its blood-safety program, Chiron Corp. acquired Prion Solutions Inc., a company focused on research into variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other prion-related diseases.

The threat of vCJD means blood supplies are limited by specific deferral donor standards introduced throughout the world in recent years. Chiron believes it would have an important blood-safety breakthrough product if it could design a sensitive and specific assay for vCJD.

"With the acquired [intellectual property] from Prion Solutions combined with our program, we suspect that what we have will be sufficient to develop an assay in this field," said Alison Marquiss, a spokeswoman for Chiron.

Prion Solutions, of La Jolla, Calif., holds exclusive rights from Scripps Research Institute to an antibody that recognizes the disease-specific form of the cellular prion protein. Chiron's existing research on prions has identified several classes of reagents that bind specifically to the disease-related form of prions and are useful in developing a blood-screening assay.

Chiron, which is based in Emeryville, Calif., has worked for some time with prions. Prion Solutions' technology will complement Chiron's program, and should help advance a sensitive and specific test to screen blood donations for vCJD.

"The initial uses would be where there's the highest awareness of variant CJD, such as the UK and Europe," Marquiss told BioWorld Today. "We do plan to partner with potential animal diagnostic applications on the technology, so there is some potential beyond blood screening."

The disease is a slow, progressive neurological disorder that is believed to be transmissible through blood by an infectious protein particle, or prion. It is characterized by dementia and involuntary muscle contractions. While some believe vCJD has infected far more people than diagnosed, there are more than 150 cases recorded in Europe. The disease has been linked with cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. People have acquired the disease through eating beef or coming into contact with the cattle. In the UK, two cases have been reported in a blood donor and the recipient of the blood, suggesting the disease is transmitted through transfusion.

Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, but Jennifer Chao, a research analyst with New York-based Deutsche Bank, said the total purchase price probably does not exceed several million dollars.

Chiron's blood-testing unit produced revenues of $115 million in the quarter ended June 30. The unit focuses on developing blood-screening tools. Its Procleix assays and systems, which were developed with San Diego-based Gen-Probe Inc., use nucleic and acid-testing technology to detect RNA and DNA in donated blood, plasma, organs and tissue during the early stages of infection.

"We launched our Procleix assay at the end of February of 2002, and that screens close to 80 percent of the nation's blood supply," Marquiss said.

The test screens for HIV-1, hepatitis C and West Nile virus infections.

Chiron's stock lost 8.6 percent of its value late last week after reporting that a small number of Fluvirin lots do not meet product sterility specifications. The company said its full-year pro-forma earnings guidance would come in at the low end of its forecast. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 30, 2004.)

Following the news on Fluvirin and the recent acquisition of Prion Solutions, Chao has reiterated a hold rating of Chiron's stock and puts a 12-month price target at $50.

Chiron's stock (NASDAQ:CHIR) dropped 20 cents on Tuesday, to close at $42.38.

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