By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

Eight months into their five-year alliance using transgenic mice to identify fully human antibody drug targets against cancer and other diseases, Abgenix Inc. and CuraGen Corp. are reporting a sizeable chunk of cheese: 24 candidates for further evaluation.

"It's mainly in cancer," said CuraGen spokesman Mark Vincent, adding that a "small number" are related to inflammatory indications.

Under the terms of the five-year deal signed late last year, Fremont, Calif.-based Abgenix is applying its XenoMouse technology for antibodies against targets discovered by CuraGen, of New Haven, Conn. They aim to develop up to 120 candidates in cancer, inflammation and autoimmune diseases. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 10, 1999, p. 1.)

"We're ahead of schedule," said Vincent. "It's the first time anything's been done this quick. We're already getting feedback on antigens, and we're doing preclinical work, toxicity testing. It's definitely a long way to a drug, but we feel confident that we can put the earliest ones into the clinic by fourth quarter 2001, or first quarter 2002."

As part of the agreement, CuraGen - which is one of many collaborators in Abgenix's mouse program - sold $15 million of its common stock to Abgenix, and is providing research support payments of $7.5 million total, or $1.5 million per year, to the mutual effort. Both companies get royalties on the candidates developed by each other.

"They have other deals that are customer-provider relationships," Vincent said. "We pay them a small fee on a yearly basis, but we set it up as a partnership."

Selecting which antibody will be developed by which company is "basically an NFL draft process," Vincent said. "Abgenix gets some, we get some. We're not disclosing the details, but it's a picking process" that does not involve bids, he said.

CuraGen, which has a list of well-known partners on its own, is using two gene discovery technologies, SeqCalling, a sequence database product, and GeneCalling, which produces fully annotated databases that are integrated with PathCalling, a pathway and target discovery technology.

GeneCalling gives a quick expression analysis of almost all genes associated with diseases and drug responses based on proprietary gene tagging, quantification and database look-up processes. PathCalling characterizes the roles of genes and their related proteins in biological pathways.

"We want to look at the antibodies that are the most promising, instead of looking at the [specific] disease area," Vincent said. "If one is successful, great. That's all we really are trying to do, is improve the odds."

CuraGen's stock (NASDAQ:CRGN) closed Tuesday at $32.625. Abgenix's shares (NASDAQ:ABGX) ended the day at $55.75, down $2.50.

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