Swedish biotechnology company Active Biotech AB plans to focus solely on its drug development programs following the sale of its SBL Vaccin business to PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc, company president and CEO Sven Andriasson told BioWorld International.

The deal comprises US$50 million in cash plus two additional payments of US$5 million to US$10 million. These depend on the timing of regulatory approvals for its traveler¿s diarrhea vaccines, Dukoral and ETEC, from the European Medicines Evaluation Agency and the FDA, respectively. The sale immediately boosts the company¿s cash position to SEK700 million (US$64 million).

The Lund-based company originally purchased the vaccines unit from the Swedish state in 1997, and did ¿a pretty good job¿ in developing it further, Andriasson said. But for a company of Active Biotech¿s size, to continue in both businesses would have been ¿a little bit too ambitious.¿

Active Biotech¿s decision to exit the vaccines arena and concentrate on drug development is a neat reversal of PowderJect¿s strategy, as the latter company is divesting its drugs business and positioning itself as a vaccines player.

The timing of the sale is linked to positive progress in its clinical development programs. Active Biotech is moving two treatments ¿ a multiple sclerosis small-molecule candidates, SAIK-MS, and a biological drug targeting non-small-cell lung cancer and renal cancer ¿ into Phase II clinical trials.

¿Obviously, that requires a lot of spending,¿ Andriasson said. The company aims to commence its cancer studies by the fall, and the MS trial will begin either late this year or early next year. The company has three core development programs in total, covering autoimmune and inflammatory diseases and cancer. Two of them, its B and Q platforms, are small-molecule programs with some degree of overlap. They are based, respectively, around benzamide and linomide chemistry.

The B Platform has yielded a molecule that regulates NF kappa B, a transcription control factor that governs expression of tumor necrosis factor alpha. This has potential application in conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. SAIK-MS, which is derived from the Q Platform, is an immunomodulator that can be taken as a daily tablet. The same program has also led to the identification of a lead with potential application to systemic lupus erythematosus or Type I diabetes.

¿SLE feels more right, right now,¿ said Active Biotech Vice President for R&D Tomas Leanderson, although the company has not made a final decision, he added. Another compound that has emerged from this screening program is undergoing assessment for its potential in treating prostate cancer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The final program is based on Tumor Targeted Superantigens (TTS), which activate T-cell immune responses. These constructs contain Staphylococci-derived superantigen molecules, which have been subjected to site-directed mutagenesis to eliminate their toxicological profile, but which retain their T-lymphocyte binding and activation properties. These can be linked to tumor-specific antibody fragments in E. coli backgrounds, Leanderson said.

As well as pursuing these programs, Active Biotech is open to possible acquisitions that fit into its chosen disease areas, Andriasson said. The company, which is quoted on the Stockholm stock exchange, is also considering raising more funds through an institutional or a secondary offering, although the immediate pressure to do so is now off. ¿For the moment, I would not got out and ask for new capital,¿ he said.

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