BioWorld International Correspondent

You win some, and - maybe - you lose some.

That's one way of looking at Medivir AB's latest news: The Swedish biotechnology firm signed new drug discovery deals with F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. and with Chinese pharmaceutical firm Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine Co. Ltd. in hepatitis C and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respectively, while Roche has - for the time being - withdrawn from an existing alliance to develop the HIV preclinical drug candidate MV026048.

Basel, Switzerland-based Roche and Medivir agreed to restructure their alliance on MV026048, a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor, following the emergence of evidence indicating that the molecule may have a broader therapeutic applicability than originally envisaged.

Before it can attempt to exploit that opportunity, however, Huddinge-based Medivir has to resolve what it described as "current challenges" with respect to the compound. The company would not elaborate publicly on what those challenges entail. "It's not a question of the molecule, because that's fixed and won't be changed," Rein Piir, chief financial officer and head of investor relations, told BioWorld International.

The original agreement was worth up to US$42 million in up-front and milestone payments to Medivir, as well as royalties. Any new agreement with Roche would be worth more, Piir said. "Depending on where they opt in - as they have different options to do that, according to the amended development plan - the deal value is definitely higher." (See BioWorld International, April 17, 2002.)

Medivir is carrying the costs of the additional preclinical development work, but, Piir said, that expense will be covered by the R&D funding available through the newly signed hepatitis C program. The latter is at mid-stage preclinical development, he said. "Roche has some ideas; we have some ideas, as we have an internal development project in polymerases and proteases in the hepatitis C area," he said. The collaboration with Roche is concentrating on nucleoside analogues acting on polymerase targets. The aim, Piir said, would be to move quickly to lead optimization.

The agreement with Jiangsu Hengrui, of Shanghai, China, involves a hunt for inhibitors of the public domain target matrix metalloprotease-12 (MMP12), which is implicated in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a set of respiratory conditions, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and, in certain cases, asthma - characterized by airway constriction, mucus production and inflammation.

Medivir is supplying its screening systems and expertise in protease inhibition, while Jiangsu Hengrui is making its medicinal chemistry resources available. Each partner is carrying its own costs. In the case of Medivir, that will amount to little more than a single full-time equivalent. Medivir will retain intellectual property rights resulting from the joint program. "Down the line, if we feel we are coming closer to drug-like molecules, they are obliged to pick one for the Chinese market," Piir said. "We would do another one for the Western world."