By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

As industry watchers await promised news of in-licensings by the company, Biogen Inc. signed a collaborative research deal with NsGene A/S, a spin-off of Denmark-based NeuroSearch A/S, to investigate a novel neurotrophic protein called neublastin for the treatment of peripheral neurodegenerative diseases.

If a product results, Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen will pay as much as $20 million in fees, milestones and royalties to NsGene.

"This is not going to get anybody excited," said Eric Schmidt, analyst and vice president in the biotech group of SG Cowen Securities Corp. in Boston.

Under the terms of the agreement, Biogen gets rights to develop neublastin, a preclinical candidate, for multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as indications outside the central nervous system. That was a key point for Biogen, said company spokeswoman Lisa Easley.

The company's blockbuster treatment Avonex (interferon beta-1a) is the world's leading MS drug, both in terms of number of patients and sales volume. Avonex pushed Biogen to $794.4 million in revenues last year, compared to $557.6 million the year before. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 18, 2000, p. 1.)

"We're studying a variety of compounds for MS, the idea being that we're committed to finding the best possible therapy," Easley said. "Avonex is very good, but it's not to say there's not something better."

Neublastin, discovered by NsGene, is a protein growth factor that belongs to the glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor group of the transforming growth factor-beta superfamily. It is the ligand for a receptor discovered by Biogen scientists.

Late last year, NeuroSearch raised $13.2 million for the NsGene spin-off, which took over the patent rights to neublastin. Animal studies suggest it has a protective and growth-promoting effect on neurons in Parkinson's disease. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 11, 1997, p. 1.)

Biogen has said it would in-license two late-stage products this year. Easley said this remains a goal, and Schmidt recommended that shareholders sit tight.

"We really like the stock, and we think it will recover in the next three to six months," Schmidt said, although "it's going to be a couple of years for a new product, so I wouldn't be holding your breath there."

The company's stock (NASDAQ:BGEN) closed Thursday at $57, up 6 cents.