By Matthew Willett

Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. agreed to sell up to $60 million of its stock over the next 28 months to Acqua Wellington North American Equity Fund Ltd. pursuant to a shelf registration of 3 million shares.

The shares, put on the shelf in early November, will be sold to Acqua Wellington at a slight discount at the time of sale at the company's discretion, and proceeds from the sale will be used for general corporate purposes, the company said. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 8, 2000.)

Boulder, Colo.-based Ribozyme develops ribozyme therapeutics, treatments based on naturally occurring fragments of RNA that act as enzymes. Its stock (NASDAQ:RZYM) closed Tuesday at $10.687.

Ralph Christoffersen, president and CEO of Ribozyme, told BioWorld Today joining the ranks of Acqua Wellington-funded biotechs has its advantages.

"It allows us to choose when we want to sell the equity, so we can time the sale of that equity to coincide with reasonable market conditions," Christoffersen said. "The second thing is that the equity will be sold at reasonable discounts, small discounts to the market, and the third is that Acqua Wellington has shown that they're becoming a medium- to long-term investor in a variety of biotech companies, making a serious set of investments in the biotech sector."

Though the company hasn't yet completed its year-end financial data collection, Christoffersen estimated his company had about $60 million in the bank as of year-end 2000 and about 15.1 million shares outstanding.

The general corporate purpose of the financing likely will entail funding for eight trials slated to be under way in 2001. Testing in the company's solid tumor therapeutic Angiozyme, its hepatitis-C treatment Heptazyme, its metastatic breast cancer treatment Herzyme, and its treatment for hepatitis B, hepBzyme, are slated for 2001.

Angiozyme will undergo testing in five indications: renal cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, melanoma and non-small-cell lung cancer.

"There's one each for Heptazyme, a Phase II trial in that program, and Herzyme, and for hepBzyme there will be a Phase I/II trial in 2001," Christoffersen said.

Competitively, he said, the company is well positioned, with four products in the clinic and a well-protected proprietary technology.

"We think we have a very strong position for a number of reasons in both the cancer and viral disease areas," Christoffersen said. "We've developed a new class of therapeutic agents, ribozymes, which we have a very broad intellectual property position for that covers virtually all the applications we have in line for ribozyme therapies. Because of the high degree of selectivity that we've seen with ribozymes in animal and clinical studies thus far, it gives us the belief that we'll have very benign safety profiles."

He added that the ease of administration - ribozymes can be administered, he said, with single subcutaneous bolus injections - the therapies have even further advantage.

"We now have four products in our portfolio, and each is potentially a major product," Christoffersen said. "For a relatively small biotech, four products in the clinic is a significant pipeline."