BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Protherics plc made a breakthrough for UK biotechnology when it became the first company to get an antibody drug discovered and developed in-house, onto the U.S. market. CroFab, a rattlesnake antivenom, is the first new treatment for crotalid snake bites since 1954.

At the same time the company said it raised £3.1 million (US$4.5 million) through a placement, to expand production of CroFab and fund Phase IIa trials of its angiotensin vaccine for high blood pressure.

CEO Andrew Heath told BioWorld International, "Cash flow over this year will clearly be positive. But revenues will be weighted to the end of the year."

The company, based in Macclesfield, Cheshire, is currently negotiating the sale of its computer-aided molecular design business (CAMD). "We didn't want to be squeezed as we divest CAMD, and end up in the position that in August the deal has not gone though, and funds are running low."

Protherics is expecting around £6 million in revenue this year from sales of CroFab, and of DigiTab, a treatment for overdoses of the heart drug digoxin, which is expected to receive FDA approval in mid-2001.

CroFab received FDA approval on Oct. 2 and is being marketed in the U.S. by Savage Laboratories, of Melville, N.Y., the pharmaceutical division of Altana Inc. The compound consists of ovine monovalent immunoglobulin fragments obtained from the blood of healthy sheep flocks immunized with North American snake venom. It is manufactured at Protherics' facility in Wales.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the U.S. each year, with 12 to 15 fatalities. The most common problem for survivors is local tissue destruction, but severe coagulation abnormalities and other systemic side effects may occur.

Protherics is also expecting increasing royalties this year from its post-mortem diagnostic for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) following the recent European Union decision to test all beef carcasses from animals over 30 months old. Protherics' technology is licensed to an Irish company, Enfer Scientific Ltd., whose test was validated by the EU last year as the fastest, and one of the more sensitive, tests.

"We've got the fastest test out there. Currently 2,500 cattle per day are being tested in Ireland," said Heath. With the new testing technology Enfer has the opportunity to expand its market, but it will take six months before revenues start to flow through to Protherics.

Heath said raising the £3.1 million was straightforward. "We've got a lot of wind in our sails at the moment. We saw a small number of institutions and wrapped it up within a week." The placing was underwritten by WestLB Panmure Ltd., and the shares represent 5 percent of the company.

There is of lot of interest in the CAMD business, with a number of companies at the stage of "coming in to kick the tires." Heath said it is not clear how much the divestment will raise. "It is very hard to value this sort of business. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."