AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands - The functional genomics company Devgen NV and FMC Corp. have agreed to expand the insecticide discovery collaboration they initiated in November, after Devgen made faster-than-expected progress with the program.

The deal gives Devgen US$15 million in committed R&D fees over three years, plus milestone and royalty payments. The expansion of the program also is important as an endorsement of Devgen's technology platform.

Devgen, based in Gent, Belgium, uses the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model system for finding targets and elucidating the mode of action of active compounds.

CEO Thierry Bogaert said, "In less than six months, we were able to provide FMC with information on the mechanism of action of several of their compounds. In addition, we were able to design a target-specific high-throughput screen in C. elegans, and deliver active compounds from screening."

The expansion was disclosed by Bogaert at the European Life Sciences Conference held here last week.

The collaboration is intended to make Princeton, N.J.-based FMC's insecticides more pest-specific. Devgen initially is taking existing insecticides for which the molecular targets are not well defined, and discovering those targets. Devgen will use this information to make an insecticide more target-specific so that it kills the pest and leaves other insects unaffected. A second element of the program involves putting candidate targets into C. elegans and using them to screen for novel insecticides.

Bogaert said C. elegans is the best of the model organisms used by genomics companies. Because of the three-day life cycle and ease of breeding, it can be handled like bacteria. As a result the company has been able to automate its high-throughput screens, something that has not been achieved with fruit flies, or other models such as zebrafish.

The worm is fully sequenced and has a complete cell fate map indicating the position and role of every cell. Because it has the features of a multicellular eukaryote, including a complete nervous system, gut, muscle and an epidermis, many of its biochemical pathways are similar to man. About 75 percent of human genes have direct equivalents in C. elegans, and Devgen is able to breed transgenics in which a human gene functionally replaces a worm gene in biochemical pathways.

Devgen was founded in December 1997 with initial funding of US$8.5 million, and raised a further EUR23 million in December 1999. The company has a drug discovery collaboration with the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, of Beerse, Belgium, and has its own discovery programs in Type II diabetes, CNS diseases and apoptosis, disease areas in which it said C. elegans gives it an edge over traditional technologies.