BioWorld International Correspondent

DUBLIN, Ireland - Eirx Therapeutics plc disclosed its first drug target licensing deal, a pact worth up to $18.8 million, with OSI Pharmaceuticals Inc.

The deal involves four genes implicated in the regulation of apoptosis. OSI, of Melville, N.Y., licensed rights to discover and develop oncology drugs against the targets.

"You could consider them as targets associated with maintaining the survival advantage of cancer cells," Ian Hayes, CEO of Cork, Ireland-based Eirx told BioWorld International.

Last June, OSI entered a then-undisclosed evaluation and option agreement involving a dozen Eirx targets. It now has decided to take four of those into discovery and development, a move that triggered the first milestone payment to Eirx. "It's real tangible validation of what we're doing," Hayes said.

Eirx received an up-front payment and consultancy fees, and would receive additional payments if the four targets pass developmental milestones and proceed to commercialization.

OSI is valued at almost $3 billion, whereas Eirx, which in January raised £1 million (US$1.8 million) in an initial public offering on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange, is capitalized at around £10 million. Nevertheless, the companies have developed an effective working relationship, Hayes said.

"The initial deal was based on the quality of our biology," Hayes said. Eirx's founder and chief scientific officer, Tom Cotter, also professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, is an authority on apoptosis research.

Eirx is focused on finding the upstream signal transducers involved in the early events - or the induction phase - of apoptosis, and it has identified some 200 candidate genes that appear to be associated.

"We want to take some of the targets ourselves into drug discovery - that's one of the things we're putting our minds to over the next month," Hayes said.

The company already has licensed a series of compounds from academic collaborators at Trinity College in Dublin that induce apoptosis in cancer cells. It has additional academic and commercial collaborators with expertise in medicinal chemistry, assay development and screening. Some of its targets, Hayes said, might be more amenable to modulation with small interfering RNAs, rather than small molecules.