BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - ExonHit Therapeutics SA and Allergan Inc. entered a drug discovery, development and commercialization collaboration focusing on neurodegenerative diseases, pain and ophthalmology.

It calls for Paris-based ExonHit to use its proprietary gene expression technology DATAS (differential analysis of transcripts with alternative splicing) to identify new molecular targets from various libraries, as well as tissue samples and model systems, and for the companies to collaborate in the development of compounds and commercial products.

The agreement is for three years and includes an option to renew for a further two years. ExonHit will receive research and development funding from Allergan, of Irvine, Calif., as well as potential milestones and royalties. Intellectual property rights to all compounds not developed will rest with ExonHit, while the two companies will co-own the products taken into development. The French company also will retain co-development and co-commercialization options in therapeutic areas outside Allergan's specialist areas.

In addition, the deal gives ExonHit access to the novel chemistry of Allergan for the development of new treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It will pay royalties to Allergan on the sales of any such products that reach the market. Apart from that, the companies have agreed to exclude their current internal development programs from the drug discovery alliance.

This deal is designed to capitalize on the earlier research collaboration ExonHit and Allergan entered in November 2001, which gave the U.S. company access to ExonHit's DATAS-based target identification technology Signal-Hit. ExonHit's business development manager, Aram Mangasarian, said the two companies had not waited for this initial collaboration to be completed before initiating the second. He told BioWorld International that Allergan was "very excited about the data" it had obtained from ExonHit's DATAS technology, but that the agreement had permitted it to acquire only a limited number of targets.

The new collaboration would entail greater interaction between the companies, he said, folding in the resources from the previous one but taking the drug discovery process much further. He also said that the deal would generate more research funding for ExonHit than any of its other partnering agreements. The company would receive a "global fee each year" from Allergan, thus assuring it of a "nice revenue flow" for three years at least.

Mangasarian explained that libraries generated from the first collaboration would be used in the second, and that libraries of neurodegenerative diseases would be crossed with others to see which revealed common alternative splicing signatures. The initial three years of the collaboration would be devoted to extensive DATAS analysis, target picking and lead optimization, he said, and by applying an "aggressive target screening strategy," the companies hoped to have generated several families of targets by the end of that period. These would be taken into preclinical and possibly clinical development during the following two years, he added.

One of the strategies retained by the two companies is to take existing drugs and find new therapeutic applications for them, which could result in a product getting to market more rapidly than the above scenario implies, Mangasarian said. ExonHit has already pursued this path in the development of its lead compound for ALS, EHT 0201, which is a formulation of Rilutek (riluzole), produced by Strasbourg-based Aventis SA. A Phase II trial of EHT 0201 started in October, but ExonHit now hopes to come up with novel treatments for ALS thanks to the access it is getting to Allergan's chemistry.

EHT 0201 is one of a number of "ready-for-development compounds" ExonHit is developing in two therapeutic areas - neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.