By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

Celera Genomics Group, a business of Applera Corp., Wednesday accelerated its efforts to enter the drug discovery business through the purchase of Axys Pharmaceuticals Inc. for about $173.4 million.

Axys stockholders will receive $4.65 per share, payable in Celera common stock. The value of the deal is based on Axys¿ 37.3 million shares outstanding as of May 7. Axys¿ shares (NASDAQ:AXPH) closed Tuesday at $3.45. Wednesday, the company¿s stock closed at $4.36, up 91 cents or 26.38 percent.

Celera¿s shares (NYSE:CRA) ended the day at $42.35, up 60 cents. In the past year, Axys¿ stock ranged between $2.18 and $8.87 and Celera¿s has sold at between $24 and $143.75.

Axys, of South San Francisco, was created in 1998 through the $166 million merger of Sequana Therapeutics Inc. and Arris Pharmaceutical Corp. It employs 160 people, including 125 scientists, all of whom will retain their positions after the acquisition, Celera company officials said. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 4, 1997.)

¿We believe Axys will add technical capabilities, infrastructure and most importantly, people with exceptional skills and experience to enable Celera to take a significant step toward our future goals,¿ Peter Chambre, Celera¿s chief operating officer, said Wednesday in a conference call.

Celera, the Rockville, Md.-based company that was the driving force behind mapping the human genome, sells genomic information and enabling data management and analysis software. Its customers use this information for commercial applications in the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries in the specific areas of target identification, drug discovery and drug development.

Headed by sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, the company recently has expanded its business into the emerging fields of functional genomics, particularly proteomics and personalized health/medicine.

¿In the last several years we¿ve worked very hard at Celera in an effort to be at the centerpiece of this revolution that is taking place in the life sciences,¿ Tony White, Applera¿s CEO, said in a conference call. ¿Our ongoing goal is to extend our leadership by developing new capabilities that we need to have as we meet these goals we have set for ourselves. Now, we are focused on the possibilities that are in front of us that can lead us to the next phase of our development.¿

Celera has focused its initial target discovery in cancers. With Axys, it will develop small-molecule drugs from those targets, said Peter Barrett, Celera¿s chief business officer. The acquisition gives Celera access to Axys¿ medicinal chemistry, high-throughput screening and pharmacology.

Celera intends to continue Axys¿ partnerships and collaborations with companies, including Merck & Co. Inc., of Whitehouse Station, N.J.; Aventis SA, of Frankfurt, Germany; and Bayer AG, of Leverkusen, Germany. These collaborations address medical conditions such as osteoporosis, asthma and inflammatory and cardiovascular disease.

Axys and Merck likely will enter the clinic early next year on an osteoporosis indication; meanwhile, Axys and Aventis are working on drugs for five indications.

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