By Karen Pihl-Carey

Texas Biotechnology Corp. partnered with Schering-Plough Corp. to discover, develop and market VLA-4 antagonists in a potential $87 million alliance.

The initial focus of the collaboration will be to find oral antagonists to treat asthma.

"We think it's valuable for shareholders to see us in a good partnership with a large pharmaceutical company so expert in this area," said Pamela Murphy, vice president of corporate communications at Texas Biotechnology, of Houston. "Clearly, that is good for building the company and good for shareholder value."

Texas Biotechnology's stock (AMEX:TXB) closed Monday at $18.25, up 25 cents.

Schering-Plough, of Madison, N.J., will obtain exclusive worldwide rights to develop, manufacture and market all VLA-4 compounds, as well as rights to a second integrin antagonist. The companies would not disclose the second target.

As part of the agreement, Schering-Plough will optimize a lead compound and additional follow-on compounds, supporting research activities and covering costs for product development and commercialization of the compounds. It also will pay an up-front license fee, development milestones and royalties on product sales to Texas Biotechnology. In total, the agreements could mean up to $87 million, not including royalties, to Texas Biotechnology.

Richard Dixon, Texas Biotechnology's chief scientific officer and senior vice president of research, would not break down the $87 million or give specific royalty figures, but he stressed it is a good deal for an early-stage program.

The VLA-4 antagonists, he said, may represent a substantial improvement over existing anti-asthma agents. "They're anti-inflammatory drugs, which may have fewer side effects than one finds with steroids," he told BioWorld Today. Those side effects include reduced growth in children, gastrointestinal problems and cataract formation, among others.

While the companies are not disclosing specific timelines, Dixon said the alliance helps Texas Biotechnology accelerate the VLA-4 program. Murphy said the company will continue its work on the optimization of clinical candidates for the time being.

VLA-4, also known as the integrin A4B1, plays a key role in inflammation by binding to VCAM-1, a member of the family of proteins called cell adhesion molecules. VCAM-1 causes white blood cells to migrate to sites of inflammation on the walls of blood vessels, and VLA-4 is found on most types of white blood cells. More than 15 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and most current drugs do not cure the underlying cause of the disease, the company said.

The alliance with Schering-Plough is Texas Biotechnology's second bit of good news in recent weeks. On June 30, it received final FDA approval of argatroban (formerly known as Novastan) to prevent or treat thrombosis associated with heparin-induced thrombocytopenia. (See BioWorld Today, July 3, 2000, p. 1.)

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