By Brady Huggett

British Biotech plc and Serono SA agreed to jointly research, develop and commercialize metalloenzyme inhibitors for the treatment of inflammatory diseases in a deal worth anywhere from $30 million to $80 million for British Biotech.

"We are very pleased with the deal," said Tony Weir, finance director of British Biotech. "They're the third biggest biotech company in the world, and Europe's largest biotech."

Serono, of Geneva, Switzerland, and British Biotech, of Oxford, England, will work to identify new compounds for clinical development based on British Biotech's proprietary metalloenzyme inhibitor platform technologies. Any compounds selected for clinical development will then be progressed under the terms of an exclusive license, development and commercialization agreement.

Serono has an option to obtain exclusive rights to develop and commercialize BB-2827, British Biotech's collagenase inhibitor that has potential for rheumatoid arthritis treatment and recently entered clinical development. Serono also gained rights to BB-76163, an aminopeptidase inhibitor with potential application in multiple sclerosis that is in preclinical development.

Metalloenzymes have one or more active-site catalytic metal ions and are implicated in a wide range of diseases, including hypertension, cancer, bacterial infection and inflammation.

Serono has four recombinant products on the market: Gonal-F, Rebif, Serostim and Saizen. The company is focused on expanding its positions in metabolism, neurology and growth deficiencies and on establishing new therapeutic areas. It has seven products in development, including six recombinant proteins.

British Biotech will receive an initial payment of $5 million, a series of undisclosed milestone payments and eventual royalties on any commercialized products. The companies will share costs of research equally, while product development costs will be shouldered by Serono, although British Biotech has the right to fund half of such costs and may co-promote products with Serono in certain circumstances for increased returns on sales.

"We got the $5 million," Weir said. "We'll use the money to do more in the research area and we are looking toward broadening our portfolio. We set [the $30 million to $80 million range] on a slightly pessimistic end and a slightly optimistic end."

British Biotech has six products in development, the most noteworthy being Marimastat, an oral matrix metalloproteinase inhibitor in development as an anticancer agent and licensed to Schering-Plough Corp., of Madison, N.J. The product has been involved in six Phase III studies, with five completed, giving mostly unfavorable results. (See BioWorld Today, June 26, 2000.)

"To be fair, most of the trial results are not so positive," Weir said. "The studies ongoing for small-cell lung cancer have a lower tumor burden and are the best chance with Marimastat. The results will either give us the information that we can take and file with, or if not, then it will likely be the end of Marimastat. But that will be decided with Schering-Plough."

British Biotech also has BB-3644, a follow-on to Marimastat that is in Phase I development for cancer; BB-10153, a product for cardiovascular disease that has completed Phase I development; and huN901-DM1, a targeted cytotoxic for small-cell lung cancer in preclinical development in collaboration with ImmunoGen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass. (See BioWorld Today, May 8, 2000.)

British Biotech is ready for other deals.

"We are looking to outlicense BB-10153," Weir said. "That is one of our higher risk projects. The issue is whether people can make money out of it, so we may or may not get a partner for that."

Weir said the company likes the idea of partners and is also seeking to in-license products, similar to the deal it struck with ImmunoGen.

"It is important to exploit [British Biotech] with partners because we can't do it all ourselves. We're a small company. [Serono is] the ideal partner for us."

British Biotech's stock (NASDAQ:BBIOY) closed unchanged Tuesday at $3.

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