Washington Editor

Genzyme Biosurgery entered a scientific and strategic collaboration with a recently formed company co-founded by physicians who are developing a biological pacemaker created by gene transfer.

The deal is with Excigen Inc., a Baltimore-based company established by Eduardo Marban, the Michel Mirowski MD professor of cardiology and professor of medicine, physiology and biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and his colleague, Kevin Donahue, an assistant professor of medicine. Excigen's immediate objectives are to provide a treatment for atrial fibrillation and to develop a natural pacemaker that could take the place of an electronic device in some patients, Marban told BioWorld Today. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 12, 2002.)

Financial details were not released. However, Dan Quinn, a Genzyme Biosurgery spokesman, characterized the company's investment as "non-material," saying Genzyme Biosurgery is getting an equity investment in Excigen. Genzyme Biosurgery, a division of Genzyme Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., trades separately from its parent.

Quinn described the deal as a research collaboration "where they will tap into a lot of our expertise and our scientific strength in gene therapy to help them develop the treatments they are working on."

Excigen's initial focus will be on developing gene therapy treatment options for atrial fibrillation and bradyarrhythmia.

"Right now the focus is not on discovering the method of treatment, but rather on doing the safety, efficacy and durability studies that need to be done in order to get into initial human clinical trials," Marban said. "So we know what to do, we just need to make sure we are doing it correctly and safety."

He added that Excigen is financed, but is virtual in the sense that it focuses on the infrastructure of conducting research and advancing the concept, not on building bricks and mortar. "It is mostly a company that has licensed technology from Johns Hopkins University in relevant areas and has raised financing, and the partnership with Genzyme, to enable us to move those discoveries into the clinical application."

Meanwhile, Genzyme Biosurgery has its own gene therapy program. In a Phase I study, researchers are looking at the use of gene therapy to grow new blood vessels in patients with peripheral vascular disease, and in a second Phase I, the company is using gene therapy as an adjunct to coronary artery bypass surgery. Also, Quinn said the company is conducting a Phase II trial to evaluate the use of autologous cell therapy to strengthen cardiac muscle and prevent the progression from heart attack to heart failure.

Of the collaboration, Duke Collier, Genzyme Biosurgery's president, said in a prepared statement, "This collaboration is a great strategic fit for Genzyme Biosurgery, and we are extremely excited to be working with two pioneers in understanding the root causes of cardiac arrhythmias, and the potential for gene therapy to address them. The excellent preclinical work done by Excigen to date positions the company well in its development of new approaches for treating this important health problem."

Genzyme Biosurgery's stock (NASDAQ:GZBX) closed Tuesday at $1.31, down 5 cents.