With an eye on penetrating the diagnostic sector, therapeutics firm Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. reached a deal with a major Japanese company.

Ribozyme entered into an agreement with Fujirebio Inc. to develop and commercialize ribozyme-based clinical diagnostic products, marking the first significant union between Ribozyme and its allosteric ribozyme platform technology with a diagnostics company.

“We’re making ribozymes for therapeutics, so we can just make different kinds of ribozymes for diagnostics and we’re not really having to build a new infrastructure,” said Nassim Usman, Ribozyme’s chief scientific officer and vice president of research and development. “Our strategy is not to become a diagnostics company our goal is to provide the platform technology for diagnostic companies such as Fujirebio to go and create new tests. We will develop the technology, we will get milestones, licensing [payments], royalties, etc., but we won’t have to put in place a sales and marketing force.”

This agreement disclosed Monday allows for just such an arrangement.

“They would like to have new technologies to use in their diagnostic detection platform,” Usman said. “This is a key technology that could help them with all of their viral screening, and could potentially be used in the future for protein diagnostics.”

Tokyo-based Fujirebio will receive exclusive commercialization rights for East Asia, including Japan, to any products resulting from the collaboration. Boulder, Colo.-based Ribozyme will receive licensing fees, research funding, milestone payments and royalties, as well as retaining certain manufacturing rights. Ribozyme did not disclose a specific developmental timeline.

“We should be able to generate revenues from a diagnostic product toward the latter part of 2003,” Usman said, adding that specific terms would not be disclosed.

Fujirebio will fund research for clinical diagnostic targets in the fields of human viral diseases and cancer.

Ribozyme says its allosteric ribozyme platform technology should aid in improving on currently available in vitro diagnostics and pharmacoproteomic systems.

“Through molecular evolution, we developed an allosteric-sensing domain for whatever it is we’re trying to measure,” Usman said. “If there’s no virus, the ribozyme can’t cleave a reporter molecule, so you get no signal. But if there is virus in the sample, it binds to the allosteric domain of the ribozyme, the ribozyme is turned on, and it then cuts the reporter molecule and then releases a luminescence or fluorescent signal, indicating the presence of the virus. And this applies equally to proteins you just have a different kind of allosteric domain. Or it can even be used for small molecules.”

Ribozymes are synthetically engineered to act as molecular scissors capable of cleaving target RNA, blocking gene expression and preventing production of unwanted proteins. Under the direction of new CEO Howard Robin, who took the helm in the fall, Ribozyme has developed a broader corporate strategy to branch out with its technology.

“We have this very large nucleic acid chemistry expertise that we’ve developed through the manufacture of oligonucleotides of all types over the years,” Usman said. “We’re using that to do other deals with other companies. In addition to therapeutics, we now have diagnostics, pharmacoproteomics and nucleic acid technology.”

Ribozyme has spun out and licensed technology to Atugen AG, of Berlin, a company focused on target validation. Earlier this year, Ribozyme entered a licensing agreement with Archemix Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., to use allosteric ribozymes in drug discovery and optimization and environmental monitoring. Ribozyme holds equity positions in both companies and retains certain residual rights.

The company’s anti-hepatitis C virus ribozyme, Heptazyme, is in Phase II development in a multicenter U.S. trial.

Ribozyme is partnered with Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., to develop Angiozyme, an anti-angiogenic ribozyme designed to inhibit the growth of new vasculature to supply blood to tumors and prevent tumor growth and metastasis, which is in two Phase II trials.

Other Ribozyme development projects include Herzyme, an anti-HER2 ribozyme for treatment of breast and other cancers in Phase I development, and HepBzyme, a ribozyme for the treatment of hepatitis B. The Herzyme program is being developed by Medizyme Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a joint venture with Dublin, Ireland-based Elan Corp. plc. Ribozyme is collaborating with Geron Corp., of Menlo Park, Calif., to accelerate process development for Geron’s lead telomerase inhibitor, GRN163.

Ribozyme’s stock (NASDAQ:RZYM) fell 1 cent Monday to close at $3.