BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON Stephens Group Inc., the main shareholder and financial backer of the UK drug testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences plc, said it is selling its stake in HLS after becoming the target of animal rights protestors.

The headquarters of Stephens in Little Rock, Ark., has been picketed, the staff subjected to intimidating home visits from protestors and earlier this month the New York home of bank President Warren Stephens was vandalized.

Stephens stepped in to rescue HLS a year ago after its UK backers withdrew support following a prolonged and vicious campaign by the protest group Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences (SHAC). Now SHAC’s U.S. arm, formed in spring 2000, is claiming a victory in the campaign to close HLS, following the announcement that Stephens will sell all of its HLS stock and debt investments. The U.S. bank owns a 16 percent stake and took over a £24 million loan to the company when the Royal Bank of Scotland refused to renew the loan after it was targeted by SHAC.

HLS is the largest contract animal-testing laboratory in Europe, and many biotechnology companies rely on its services. Crispin Kirkman, chief executive of the UK BioIndustry Association, renewed his call for protection from animal extremists. “Employees, shareholders and investors in companies which carry out legitimate medical research involving animals must be protected from harassment and physical attacks by extremists.”

Along with the premises of HLS, its staff and some customers, SHAC UK has targeted HLS’s UK financial backers, shareholders and market makers. As a result, the company announced plans in October to delist from the London Stock Exchange and move trading in its stock to the U.S. A new U.S. corporate legal structure, Life Sciences Research Inc., has been set up in Maryland, and is due to begin trading on Nasdaq Jan. 24. It is suggested that the Stephens shareholding will be broken into tranches of less than 5 percent, so that holders will not be required to disclose their identity. Similarly, the purchaser of the HLS loan has not been disclosed.

Brian Cass, chief operating officer of HLS, said the transactions would have no impact on day-to-day operations or funding. “We now have a confirmed long-term loan through 2006, the terms of which remain the same, with a different, but equally supportive, lender.” Cass himself was assaulted by protestors in February 2001.

Following the announcement, SHAC U.S. wrote to Warren Stephens threatening to keep up protests at the bank until it reveals to whom it sold the shares.