By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

Aiming to bolster an already strong interferon gamma franchise, InterMune Inc. entered a collaboration worth up to $60 million for Maxygen Inc., which will help develop the next generation of the former¿s lead product, Actimmune (interferon gamma-1b).

¿There¿s a tremendous market in the indications we¿re looking at, and it¿s in our best interest not to wait,¿ said Tim Lynch, InterMune¿s chief financial officer.

The deal is Maxygen¿s fourth in human therapeutics, said Jeannine Medeiros, manager of investor and public relations for the firm.

¿It¿s very similar to the Lundbeck deal that we¿ve done, where we¿ve generated compositions of matter or optimized product candidates,¿ she said.

In September 2000, Maxygen entered a research agreement for a protein drug against central nervous system diseases including multiple sclerosis with H. Lundbeck A/S, of Copenhagen, Denmark, which licensed rights. Maxygen retained rights for neurological indications in key Asian markets and global rights for all indications outside of central nervous system diseases, including inflammatory diseases and cancer.

In such deals, Medeiros said, Maxygen proves the commercial properties of compounds, and then seeks partners.

¿[InterMune] marks one of three we¿ve committed to deliver this year,¿ she told BioWorld Today.

Under the terms of the deal, Brisbane, Calif.-based InterMune will take into the clinic the potential products created by Maxygen, of Redwood City, Calif., during the next two or three years.

¿That¿s what we expect,¿ Lynch said. ¿That¿s our goal. They have candidates they¿ve already taken into preclinical development and done some animal work with.¿

InterMune will pay for development and keeps worldwide commercialization rights, giving Maxygen up-front license fees, research funding and milestone payments that could exceed $60 million, as well as royalties. Further details were not disclosed, but Lynch noted that ¿typically, a large portion would come from development milestones.¿

Actimmune was first approved in 1990 for Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco, to treat chronic granulomatous disease. InterMune was formed as a wholly owned subsidiary of Connetics Corp., of Palo Alto, Calif., and Connetics licensed Actimmune to InterMune after acquiring it from Genentech.

InterMune won its first approval with Actimmune last year, for severe osteopetrosis, and the drug is being developed in Phase III trials for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. A Phase III trial for ovarian cancer also is planned.

Actimmune¿s sales have topped $13 million in the first half of 2001, and analyst estimates have put sales at around $66 million in 2002.

Lynch acknowledged that the strategy in the Maxygen deal is similar to the approach taken by Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif., with its blockbuster anemia drug Epogen (epoetin alfa). Amgen has developed Epogen in extended-release form as Aranesp (darbepoetin alfa), and is discussing the drug¿s label with the FDA.

A version of Actimmune that can be dosed less often is the main objective of the Maxygen pact, Lynch told BioWorld Today, although ¿we¿re not going to know the result of the collaboration until we¿re well into it.¿

He said the firms will ¿look at a couple of potential benefits of improving the molecule ¿ dosing regimen, improving the pharmacokinetics. It¿s really a long-term plan.¿

Maxygen¿s protein modification expertise is ¿first class in the field,¿ Lynch said. The company focuses on what it calls directed molecular evolution, using technology it has named MolecularBreeding, which consists of DNAShuffling and MaxyScan.

In June, InterMune licensed the FDA-approved hepatitis C therapeutic Infergen (interferon alfacon-1) from Amgen for $21 million in up-front payments, $8 million in near-term milestones and royalties. (See BioWorld Today, June 18, 2001.)

¿Similar to Actimmune, we¿re looking for next-generation technologies for Infergen,¿ Lynch said. ¿Other alpha interferons are pegylated, and we have a long-term plan for Infergen to potentially pegylate it, or find another dosing format.¿

Medeiros said Maxygen this year shifted its emphasis away from chemical and agricultural efforts, which ¿operate almost independently now,¿ and is setting its sights on developing drugs.

¿It¿s 50 percent of what we do now, but we¿re committed to focusing our internal efforts on advancing human therapeutics,¿ she said.

Maxygen¿s stock (NASDAQ:MAXY) closed Tuesday at $13.95, down 50 cents. InterMune¿s shares (NASDAQ:ITMN) ended the day at $39.38, up 1 cent.

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