BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Gene therapy specialist Oxford BioMedica plc said it is parking several of its research programs and slowing the expansion program begun in 2001, in order to eke out existing cash reserves and leave it with enough money to last until the third quarter of 2004.

"In the current market conditions one of the most important aspects of a biotech company is its working capital reserves," Chairman Peter Johnson said last week when Oxford BioMedica published half-year results. As a result, the company has undertaken "operational economies" to stretch the £26.4 million (US$41.3 million) cash it had on June 30 to well into 2004. The company previously said the money would last to the end of 2003.

The steps include not taking BetOvac and ProCaStat, two cancer treatments that are close to completing preclinical development, into the clinic unless partners are found to fund the trials. Johnson said that with the success of two other cancer gene therapy products, MetXia and TroVax in Phase I/II trials, "there is less need to drive the broader cancer product portfolio as aggressively as anticipated."

In addition, several early stage projects that are some way from clinical or commercial development have been put on hold. Johnson said that despite the cutbacks, "the company has been able to continue its strategic drive to extend the product portfolio beyond cancer." In the past few months it has added a product for motor neuron disease, and has new programs in retinopathy, anemia, hemophilia, angiogenesis and stroke.

Oxford BioMedica said it also saved money moving work from its base in Oxford, to a new facility in San Diego. Because the San Diego operation was up and running sooner than anticipated, positions earmarked to move from Oxford were transferred earlier, without the need to have an overlap between the two locations, and resulting in reduced staff in Oxford.

The company's share price fell 1.5 pence to 10 pence last week after the news was announced Wednesday. That means the market capitalization of £23.7 million is more or less equivalent to the cash reserves. At the start of 2002 the shares were worth 33.5 pence.

Oxford BioMedica set up the facility in San Diego to enable it to conduct clinical trials in the U.S., and Johnson said the move already is bearing fruit. The company had a pre-IND meeting with the FDA to discuss a trial of TroVax in the treatment of colorectal cancer, administered directly to a patient's dendritic cells. It is expected the study will commence later this year at the Arizona Cancer Center.

The company also discussed ProSavin, a Parkinson's disease treatment based on its LentiVector viral vector with the FDA and said pending formal approval it is on course to conduct a Phase I/II study in late-stage Parkinson's disease patients. It is in discussions with U.S. centers to conduct the trial.