By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

Metabasis Therapeutics Inc. licensed its hepatitis B compound to ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., the maker of ribavirin, a hepatitis C treatment.

Paul Laikind, Metabasis¿ chairman, CEO and president, would not discuss financial details. However, he told BioWorld Today the deal was similar to many others in that Metabasis was paid initial fees and could be paid milestones in the $20 million to $30 million range as well as royalties. ICN, of Costa Mesa, Calif., will pay all development costs.

Within San Diego-based Metabasis, the compound is known as MB6866, and represents the company¿s first clinical candidate resulting from the HepDirect Prodrug Technology platform.

Laikind explained that the proprietary HepDirect technology allows liver targeting of the biologically active form of many drugs. Through use of the HepDirect system, an inactive form (called HepDirect Prodrug) of the drug is made and given to the patient. The product then distributes throughout the body and when it reaches the liver it is metabolized into an active form. The company said this approach improves the safety and efficacy of drugs for liver-related diseases.

Metabasis licensed the hepatitis B compound because it does not fit into the company¿s commercial focus. ¿ICN has built a good team in the hepatitis area. They have the capability and the expertise to take this to the next step,¿ Laikind said. ¿Our expertise was discovering the drug, taking it to the point where it can go to the clinic.¿

ICN will refer to the compound as ICN 2001-3. Milan Panic, ICN¿s chairman and CEO, said, ¿Our interest in the product is to further consolidate our pipeline on antivirals and to capture another significant antiviral market.¿

Laikind further stated that the ICN agreement is significant because it allows Metabasis to accelerate the development of its diabetes compound, a result of a four-year-old collaboration with Sankyo Co. Ltd., of Tokyo. The compound currently is in Phase I clinical testing.

Metabasis¿ agreement with Sankyo was the company¿s first major deal (ICN is the second) since becoming independent. Sankyo is fully funding development while Metabasis retains co-promotion rights in North America and receives typical milestones and royalties.

Metabasis, a private company with 60 employees, at one time was part of Gensia Sicor Inc., of Irvine, Calif. Last year Metabasis raised $13 million in its first financing after spinning off from Sicor in 1999. (See BioWorld Today, July 20, 2000.)

The company initially funded itself through the $25 million collected over the life of the Sankyo agreement.

ICN recently licensed Levovirin, another hepatitis C product, to Hoffmann-La Roche. ICN licensed ribavirin to Schering-Plough Corp., which markets it as Rebetol in conjunction with alpha-interferon.

The World Health Organization estimates 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with hepatitis B, about 350 million of them with lifelong chronic infection, statements from both companies said.