PARIS - Neurotech S.A. and the Danish gene therapy company NsGene A/S signed a collaboration and licensing agreement covering the development of the French firm's Encapsulated Cell Technology (ECT) for the treatment of neurological and ocular diseases.

Specifically, the deal provides for NsGene, of Copenhagen, to concentrate its research effort on developing ECT products for the treatment of epilepsy and neurodegenerative diseases, the pathologies in which it specializes, and for Evry-based Neurotech to focus on therapies for cancer and eye disease. It also provides for the companies, either jointly or separately, to develop products derived from ECT for the treatment of other neurological conditions.

In addition, NsGene is to make its neurotrophic factor Neublastin available to Neurotech for the purpose of evaluating and developing it in combination with ECT for treating certain eye conditions. NsGene has paid Neurotech an undisclosed amount for initial exploitation rights, and subsequently the two companies will exchange royalties on the net revenues that each derives from the products developed by one or both of them.

Neurotech is developing cell-based therapies for central nervous system (CNS) disorders and ocular diseases, and last January it signed an agreement with CytoTherapeutics Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., for the acquisition of its ECT, describing it as a major expansion of its technology base (see BioWorld International, Jan. 12, 2000). According to CEO Tom Shepherd, "ECT has the potential to become the standard means for delivering therapeutic proteins into the eye and the brain," and this deal will expand its field of application since NsGene is interested in using ECT to deliver Neublastin.

ECT takes the form of an implant that releases therapeutic factors through a semi-permeable, sealed membrane for the treatment of local infections of the eye and the brain. It is designed to slowly release therapeutic proteins over a long period and enable the cells to survive in the body for a long time. The membrane permits nutritive substances to penetrate the device, but protects the cells of large molecules and the patient's immune system. It thus overcomes the problems associated with the repeated injection of therapeutic compounds.

Neurotech and NsGene maintain that ECT is a "clinically proven technological platform" and plan to bring it rapidly into clinical development for delivering a number of therapeutic proteins, including Neublastin, into the eye and the nervous system. Shepherd told BioWorld International that it intends to have a Phase I trial under way in the U.S. within 18 months, pointing out that Neurotech has a research center in the U.S. specializing in cell encapsulation. The two companies intend to apply this technology not only to eye and neurodegenerative diseases, such as macular degeneration and Parkinson's disease, but also to other pathologies that could benefit from the localized delivery of biological factors.

Shepherd stressed that ECT was an addition to, not a replacement for, other cell therapies being developed by Neurotech for the treatment of CNS and eye diseases, which are based on cell-to-cell interactions. They involve the use of immortalized endothelial and epithelial cell lines derived from brain and retina cells, which are genetically manipulated to produce in vivo therapeutic agents. The company's lead compound, NTC-121, an endothelial cell therapy for the treatment of glioblastoma, is in Phase I/II trials in France.

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