Just four years after Glen Evans left the academic world and founded his own company focused on designing protein molecules, he is handing over the reins to Johnson & Johnson.

As of Tuesday, privately held Egea Biosciences Inc. became a subsidiary of the New Brunswick, N.J.-based pharmaceutical giant. San Diego-based Egea was purchased for an undisclosed amount.

"We're incredibly thrilled with the whole deal," said Evans, who also is CEO of Egea. "We're a fairly early stage company focused on a very powerful platform technology. We entered into a collaboration [with J&J] about a year ago that has been extremely successful. So successful that they expressed an interest in acquiring us. It was a deal we couldn't turn down."

Egea will complement the work of J&J's wholly owned subsidiary Centocor Inc., which is headquartered in Malvern, Pa. Centocor will use Egea's technology to create product candidates to develop, manufacture and market - similar to what Egea has done under the recent collaboration. The original deal between Egea and Centocor was signed in May 2003 and included an option that allowed J&J to acquire Egea.

In just a year, Egea demonstrated the strength of its GeneWriter technology by working on optimizing six protein drugs with Centocor. Several of the drugs have moved into preclinical testing.

"What we're able to do is design protein molecules on the computer and then make them directly by synthesizing a gene that produces it," Evans told BioWorld Today. "We pretty much can make anything we can imagine."

The company's two platforms are GeneWriter and Protein Programming, the latter of which is a way to produce large protein libraries with directed changes.

Evans founded Egea in 2000 following his work as a leading investigator in the Human Genome Project. He held positions at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the Salk Institute. He considers the technology of which Egea was founded an "evolutionary offshoot of the Human Genome Project." That project generated a huge database of information, a sort of catalog of parts needed to make new substances, Evans said. However, in order to make those substances, companies had to start with a clone. With Egea's technology, they can bypass that roadblock. Proteins developed can be manufactured in bacteria or any other host, avoiding the manufacturing challenges and expense incurred with protein drugs produced in mammalian cells.

"We're really excited about this," said Ron Schmid, vice president of public relations at Centocor. "One of the reasons [J&J is] buying them is to maintain and build the key scientific functions. They have 39 employees and we certainly want to maintain that key scientific function. They will be integrated into J&J over time and become part of discovery research at Centocor."

Schmid said Egea will offer gene synthesis support for J&J.

"Egea in the first four years of existence has developed one of the most powerful protein drug development platform drug technologies in the world," Schmid said.

The GeneWriter technology will allow Centocor to accelerate the production of new medicines. Centocor is focused on immune-mediated inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis; inflammatory skin diseases; cancer; cardiovascular diseases; and metabolic and infectious diseases. Most of its products are developed through monoclonal antibody technology.

Egea will remain in San Diego and Evans will stay with the company, possibly under a different title. When it was first founded, Egea gained funding through a $3.5 million federal government grant for equipment and infrastructure associated with the Human Genome Project. It has raised more than $10 million since inception, and has gained additional revenues through its corporate collaborations.