LONDON ¿ PowderJect Pharmaceuticals is restructuring to focus on vaccines and immunotherapeutics and will sell off the needle-free powdered drug delivery technology around which it was formed. As part of the move the company is buying SBL Vaccin, the vaccines arm of Active Biotech AB, of Lund, Sweden.

PowderJect will pay US$50 million for SBL, plus possible further payments, conditional on product approvals and sales. The purchase will be funded by a mixture of $12.5 million in cash and the issue of 5.8 million new PowderJect shares. The company said the acquisition would consolidate its position as a leading vaccines company, expanding the clinical development portfolio, adding to its marketed products, and giving it a sales and marketing infrastructure. In addition, SBL has a distribution agreement with Aventis Pasteur, selling a range of Aventis¿ vaccines in Norway and Sweden.

SBL has revenues of around #16 million (US$22.6 million) per annum and products, including oral vaccines against traveler¿s diarrhea and cholera, and an injectable polio vaccine.

Rob Budge, director of corporate communications, told BioWorld International, ¿These moves will enable us to have a new strategic focus on vaccines, where we have a large number of products on the market and in development. In addition, the acquisition of SBL gives us a sales and marketing infrastructure to capitalize on our vaccines portfolio.¿

Budge said that the decision to divest the drug delivery business in no way implied that its system for needle-free injection of powdered small-molecule and protein drugs was inferior to needle-free methods of administering liquid drugs. ¿We have the proof of principle with lidocaine and other drugs, but the point is that this is a royalty-based business, and this business model does not fit in with the focus on vaccines.¿ In 2000, PowderJect acquired the vaccines arm of Medeva plc from Celltech plc and now says it is the six largest vaccines company in the world.

Selling the drugs business will save PowderJect, of Oxford, a hefty 40 percent slice of its #30.9 million annual R&D budget. Apart from the anesthetic lidocaine, which is now ready to enter Phase III, the business includes a collaboration with the Swiss biotechnology company Serono, and several other early stage collaborations. Paul Drayson, CEO and chairman, said he expected to divest it before the end of 2001. ¿The drugs business, while non-core for PowderJect, offers a potential buyer a strong, patented technology, with a lead product poised for Phase III studies,¿ he said.

PowderJect will retain rights to its needle-free system in vaccines, including its DNA vaccine program. ¿This technology gives us a powerful edge because of its ability to deliver vaccines directly to the antigen-presenting cells in the epidermis,¿ said Budge. ¿This is a very narrow band, smaller that the diameter of an average needle, and you can¿t put liquid [vaccines] in there.¿

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