Expanding through acquisition, Biolex Inc. purchased Epicyte Pharmaceutical Inc. for an undisclosed sum.

But for privately held Biolex, a protein therapeutics company based in Pittsboro, N.C., the transaction represents an opportunity for growth by way of complementary technologies, as both are plant-based production companies. Privately held Epicyte brings its human monoclonal antibody technology to the table, meaning the combination supplements antibody capabilities at Biolex by adding intellectual property and technology, as well as therapeutic antibodies in development.

"We've identified monoclonal antibodies as a key area of focus at our company," Biolex President and CEO Jan Turek told BioWorld Today. "And Epicyte's monoclonal antibody expertise further strengthens our current capabilities with this important class of proteins."

He said Biolex has identified three classifications of proteins enabled by its LEX System, a protein-expression technology based on the plant Lemna. The three are peptides, cytokines and monoclonal antibodies. The acquisition enhances the LEX System via Epicyte's plant-based production of antibodies through its Plantibodies technology.

"We have demonstrated our abilities to express therapeutic proteins in our LEX System, and now have done that successfully with 19 proteins," Turek said. "Our technology has proven to be robust for monoclonal antibodies, as well, in that we've done a score of them in our expression system. So access to their intellectual property and technology strengthens our path forward with monoclonal antibodies."

Biolex expects to move its lead product, alpha-interferon, into clinical trials later this year. Turek said the company's ability to express and manufacture the product is more cost efficient using its LEX System.

San Diego-based Epicyte's pipeline includes products for respiratory syncytial virus, herpes simplex virus, HIV, human papillomavirus, C. difficile, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. Turek said Biolex would run the various antibodies through the LEX System, after which the company would advance any lead candidates into an investigational new drug application within about 18 months.

"That's faster than any of the other transgenic plant systems or transgenic animal systems," he added. "The speed to market that we can offer is faster than anyone else."

The company also is working on compounds for a group of partners - Bayer, of Leverkusen, Germany; Centocor Inc., a Malvern, Pa.-based unit of Johnson & Johnson; Debiopharm SA, of Lausanne, Switzerland; and an undisclosed pharmaceutical company.

Biolex will retain its North Carolina headquarters, and Epicyte's California facilities will be closed. Turek will continue as CEO, while members of Epicyte's management team will serve as consultants to assist with the transition.

Epicyte, formed in 1996 by Mich Hein, has raised a total of $25 million, including a $16 million Series D financing. The company had about 30 employees. (See BioWorld Today, April 17, 2001.)

Last summer, Biolex raised $24 million in its fourth round of financing. The funding has allowed it to grow to 47 employees and establish GMP manufacturing capabilities. The company has raised about $33 million since its 1998 inception. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 20, 2003.)