BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Microscience Ltd. is forming a 50-50 joint venture company with the Hamburg, Germany, drug discovery services company Evotec OAI to develop small-molecule antimicrobial drugs based on targets generated by Microscience's functional genomics platform.

The new company, called Vmax, initially will share Microscience's facility in Wokingham. It will be headed by Robert Feldman, who is stepping down from his role as chief science officer of Microscience to become CEO.

Microscience is using its in-house targets to develop vaccines and has five products in the clinic. Rod Richards, CEO of Microscience, told BioWorld International, "We always said we would concentrate on vaccines, but there was the opportunity to utilize the technology to develop small-molecule [drugs].

"Evotec has chemistry skills; we don't, and we have decided that rather than buying in services a joint venture is the best way to extract value."

Vmax is being equally funded by its two parents, but Richards declined to say how much is being invested. The new company will be seeking external funding, "sooner, rather than later," he said, with the timing and the amount under review.

Microscience has a proprietary platform technology, Signature Tagged Mutagenesis (STM), a fast method of identifying virulence genes that are essential for bacteria to survive. Rather than knocking out one bacterial gene after another and separately testing the ability of each mutant to cause infection, STM makes it possible to screen large numbers of mutants in a single animal. Each mutant is tagged with a DNA identifier, or signature, which is used to single out those mutants that are capable of replication.

Microscience's vaccines programs are based on knocking out virulence genes to produce attenuated bacteria, and using the product of avirulence genes as subunit vaccines.

Richards said the targets that are going into Vmax have been validated but there are no leads yet.

Microscience, founded in May 1997, raised £25.5 million (US$39.9 million) in its third-round funding in February. Richards said that will last well into 2004, enabling the company to take its five vaccine programs through early clinical trials. The products are an oral typhoid vaccine; travelers' diarrhea, meningitis B and neonatal group B Streptococcus vaccines; and a therapeutic vaccine for hepatitis B.