By Matthew Willett

Medarex Inc. and Athersys Inc. said Wednesday they've entered a collaboration for the development of novel therapeutics using Medarex's HuMAb-Mouse technology and Athersys' RAGE technology.

The collaboration intends to jointly develop 10 or more fully human antibodies as therapeutics for cancer and other life-threatening diseases using targets identified and contributed by Athersys.

John Harrington, Athersys' executive vice president and chief scientific officer, said the three-year joint development collaboration will utilize both companies' strengths.

"At the end of the day, Athersys and Medarex are really product development companies, and we have powerful technology, but we're in business to develop therapeutics," Harrington said. "This collaboration is aimed at generating up to 10 therapeutics by the end of the collaboration, primarily in the area of cancer. Other indications will be considered, primarily for critical unmet medical needs."

Athersys, of Cleveland, will share development costs associated with the drug targets with Princeton, N.J.-based Medarex.

The companies also agreed to an option in which they may make their respective technologies available to each other for use outside the collaboration. Terms for those agreements, if necessary, will be determined.

Harrington said his company will use its proprietary technology, RAGE (random activation of gene expression) in the target identification phase.

"Our technology allows us to survey a large number of genes and look for those which when overexpressed, create phenotypes, and the phenotypes we're looking for are the phenotypes related to cancer. We're especially looking for the one responsible for gene transformation and moving a cell from pre-malignant to a malignant cell," Harrington said.

"We'll be using our protein expression technology to identify factors which, when overexpressed, will lead to a cellular transformation. The idea is that by blocking the overexpressed protein one can eliminate those tumor cells," Harrington said.

Turning targets identified by Athersys into clinical drug candidates is Medarex's part of the bargain, Medarex President and CEO Donald Drakeman said.

"They have a technology for discovering new disease targets, and we have a technology for turning those targets into products and moving them from target to trial in 12 months. We'll combine those technologies, moving genomics medicine one step closer to reality," Drakeman said.

Medarex's HuMAb-mouse technology, acquired from GenPharm International Inc. in 1997, creates human antibodies within months. Medarex already has partnered the technology with more than 20 companies.

He added that the collaboration positions the pair at the forefront of human antibody development.

"Human antibodies are clearly the quickest road from genomics discovery to therapeutic products," Drakeman said. "When you see the success of antibodies on the market, it's pretty clear that a lot of people want to be in the human antibody business right now."

Medarex's ability to move products toward the clinic quickly will speed the process toward approval, Harrington said.

"Obviously, the products that come out of this collaboration will go into clinical development, and that will occur in the years during and following the collaboration," Harrington said. "The Medarex program is interesting in that they can move rapidly from target to clinic, oftentimes in less than 12 months. That enables us to get into Phase I pretty quickly, and subsequent to that into Phase II efficacy trials to see if we've got an effect from our product."

"It allows us to take two technologies that are exactly complementary, and combine them seamlessly to move from target identification and validation to product development and testing," Drakeman said. "I think the advantages are in bringing genomic medicine to patients more rapidly than in any other way."

Medarex's stock (NASDAQ:MEDX) closed Wednesday at $93.438, up $2.562.

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