By Karen Young

Genetronics Biomedical Corp. announced a restructuring under which the chief operating and financial officers are leaving, as well as 20 percent of support staff.

The restructuring also includes a separation of the San Diego-based company¿s BTX division and the drug and gene delivery division. The BTX division, which focuses on sales of electroporation and electrofusion equipment to researchers, had $4.5 million in revenues in the last fiscal year.

The drug and gene delivery division is focused on using the company¿s electroporation technology for the treatment of cancer and the delivery of genes.

Genetronics President and CEO Avtar Dhillon, who was named to that position in September, said the moves were made ¿just to make the organization as efficient as possible.¿

¿Second, it was to have a very clear focus on our oncology program, as well as gene therapy,¿ said Dhillon, noting that the company wants to be very focused on pressing forward in cancer therapy.

Dhillon said the company expects to save about $1 million a year as a result of the staff reductions, which amounted to reducing redundancies. The savings will allow Genetronics to focus on a number of initiatives going forward, he said, adding that about 12 positions are being eliminated and 62 employees will remain.

¿We want to increase the number of genes that we can deliver and express using electroporation,¿ Dhillon said, adding that the company has been able to express more than a dozen different genes to date.

The company has five collaborations under which companies are using Genetronics¿ technology in the expression of their genes, Dhillon said, but the company is moving forward with a new focus.

¿Up to this point, we have been focused on delivery of genes for other companies, but we will be assessing the possibility of having and developing our own therapeutic gene therapy,¿ Dhillon said. ¿We should be able to identify which gene we want to develop on our own within the next two months.¿

The savings also will allow the company to speed up the initiation of pivotal trials for the use of electroporation technology to treat head and neck cancer.

¿We submitted the protocol to the FDA recently, and we¿re just waiting for a response,¿ Dhillon said.

Since 1991, Genetronics has been developing its electroporation therapy to treat patients with solid tumors. Electroporation involves using the company¿s MedPulser device to deliver a series of six pulses, each lasting less than a millisecond, to the site, where bleomycin, a generic anticancer drug, is injected. Voltage from the MedPulser causes pores to appear in cell membranes, making them temporarily much more permeable and allowing the drug to invade the interior of the target cells.

Dhillon said it most likely will be bleomycin that is used in the pivotal trials for this treatment.

The company also is reviewing the possibility of additional clinical trials to treat other forms of cancer.

¿Our technology has shown efficacy in the treatment of various types of cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell, pancreatic and liver cancer,¿ Dhillon said.

Clinical trials on cancers in organs have been conducted in Europe, whereas skin cancer trials were conducted in the U.S. and Canada.

¿We believe our technology should work on almost all solid tumors,¿ Dhillon said.

Genetronics¿ current collaborations include deals with Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., to explore using electroporation to deliver certain DNA vaccines into cells in vivo; and Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma KG, a unit of Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, of Ingelheim, Germany, to investigate electroporation technology for use in cardiovascular gene therapy.

The company also has entered two cooperative research and development agreements with the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to assess the viability of using electroporation for in vivo gene delivery.

The University of South Florida Research Foundation Inc. in September 2000 granted an exclusive, worldwide license to certain patents related to needle electrodes for use in its electroporation systems.

A collaboration that was announced with Johnson & Johnson in oncology in 1998, which had the potential to be worth in excess of $130 million, was terminated about two years ago, Dhillon said, although ¿there were payments made.¿ (See BioWorld Today, October 9, 1998.)

Genetronics¿ stock (AMEX:GEB) fell 1 cent to close at 45 cents.

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