By Matthew Willett

Nexell Therapeutics Inc. gained nonexclusive rights to parts of Epimmune Inc.'s breast, colon and lung epitope package, a set of cancer antigens Nexell plans to use in its dendritic cell vaccine program.

Nexell will pay an up-front license fee, milestones and royalties on commercialized products. The agreement includes an option for Nexell to acquire nonexclusive rights to another group of cancer antigens. Further financial details were not disclosed.

Nexell's director of corporate communication, Tad Heitmann, told BioWorld Today the antigens are critical to the company's progress toward a dendritic cell cancer vaccine.

"We have this technology process that includes many of our pieces of equipment for producing dendritic cells, cells that can then be used in clinical trials that may have utility as a vaccine when they're proven out," Heitmann said. "In order to move from the technology platform to developing specific therapeutics we need to be able to prime those dendritic cells with some kind of tumor antigen. This gives us a collection of tumor antigens that are developed to the point that they look to be promising to prime dendritic cells against tumors.

"It gives us an important piece, what's missing from an intellectual property standpoint, to move forward to the clinic in developing a cell-based vaccine."

Colon cancer will be one initial target for the dendritic vaccine, Heitmann said, and since the license covers antigens for breast and lung cancer those indications are likely candidates for future development.

For Epimmune, the deal is making use of technology the company had on the shelf, Robert Chesnut, vice president of research and development and Epimmune's acting CEO, told BioWorld Today.

Epimmune recently got rights to the cancer-specific epitope technology back from Pharmacia Corp. just after the April merger between Pharmacia & Upjohn and Searle's parent company, St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., ending a collaboration that dated to 1998. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 15, 2000.)

"This is technology that we developed in collaboration with Pharmacia that we got all rights back to recently, after the merger," Chesnut said. "We were not taking this forward in the ex vivo application of cancer immunotherapy. This deal is a nonexclusive license for ex vivo use only. It's a leveraging of an asset we worked on very diligently with the folks at Searle over the years."

Epimmune became a public company in July 1999. Its technology platform is based on its work in deciphering the genetic code that regulates T-cell activation and identifying antigen fragments known as epitopes that can activate highly targeted T-cell responses to tumors, viruses, bacteria and parasites.

The company's products in development include a therapeutic and prophylactic anti-HIV vaccine for patients on antiretroviral therapy that is expected to enter Phase I/II studies next year. Epimmune also is developing a vaccine for hepatitis C, which is expected to enter Phase I/II trials a year after the HIV product.

Heitmann said Nexell will continue to move toward making a business in graft engineering. He said the company will use its Isolex 300I Magnetic Cell Selection System, the only FDA-approved device commercially available for the selection of hematopoietic stem cells and the removal of tumor cells from autologous peripheral blood as a component of aggressive cancer treatment, to develop therapeutics against blood diseases.

"We're in the cell-processing business now, and we're moving into the graft-engineering business. That's the final step," he said. "In cell engineering, it's taking a population of cells and turning them into dendritic cells and enhancing their therapeutic potential to create the final product. That's kind of the ultimate thing, the big payoff for Nexell, the ability to create, in an ex vivo setting, specifically acting therapeutic cell products."

Epimmune's stock (NASDAQ:EPMN) fell 18.75 cents Thursday, closing at $2.687. Nexell's stock (NASDAQ:NEXL) rose 21.88 cents, closing at $1.531. n

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