By Mary Welch

In a deal worth at least $32 million, Gilead Sciences Inc. granted an exclusive, worldwide license of NX 1838, its proprietary aptamer, to EyeTech Pharmaceuticals Inc., a new company formed to develop and commercialize drugs to reduce and prevent serious vision loss caused by eye disease.

¿It¿s a nice deal for us,¿ said John Martin, Gilead¿s CEO and president. ¿The terms are fair and the money allows us to fund our other programs. In addition, we are taking this drug and putting it into very expert hands who will be able to take it forward rapidly. NX 1838 will be the cornerstone of EyeTech¿s ophthalmic portfolio.¿

Under the terms of the deal, Gilead will receive an up-front licensing fee of $7 million, and additional cash payments of up to $25 million for various developmental milestones. Gilead, based in Foster City, Calif., also will receive royalties on the worldwide sales of NX 1838. New York-based EyeTech also issued Gilead a warrant to purchase 833,333 shares of its Series B convertible preferred stock, exercisable over a five-year period for $6 each. The $6 figure is the price paid by the investors participating in EyeTech¿s recent round of venture capital financing.

¿Not only do we get some immediate money but we also participate in the upside of this drug¿s development, both in terms of royalties and in the warrant to purchase stock,¿ Martin said.

For its part, EyeTech will assume all research and development activities and costs of NX 1838 to treat age-related macular degeneration (AMD). No one from Gilead will join EyeTech to work on the drug¿s development, Martin said.

¿They have people in that company who are experts in this area,¿ he added. ¿It¿s exciting for us to have EyeTech assume development because AMD is an important medical problem in this country and worldwide, and there is no adequate treatment. This drug may make a difference.¿

In Phase I trials for AMD, NX 1838 is an inhibitor of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is known to play a role in the development of AMD and diabetic retinopathy.

NX 1838 is a compound from a class of drugs called aptamers. Made of chemically synthesized short strands of RNA, aptamers assume three-dimensional shapes that allow high affinity binding to the targets for which they are designed, a characteristic that many enhance therapeutic benefit.

EyeTech plans to start a multiple dose Phase I trial to further define NX 1838¿s safety profile as soon as the deal is consummated.

EyeTech¿s founding board members include chairman John McLaughlin, who is the former executive vice president of South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc., and former president of Tularik Inc., also of South San Francisco. Currently, he is president of San Francisco-based Corgentech, a privately held pharmaceutical company.

EyeTech¿s co-founder and acting CEO and president, David Guyer, is the director of residency training at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital and clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at Cornell University Medical Center in New York.

The other co-founder is Samir Patel, who is the company¿s chief medical officer. Patel, the first surgeon to perform a retinal transplant in humans in the U.S., was most recently director of the retinal service and residency at the University of Chicago.

Gilead¿s stock (NASDAQ:GILD) closed Thursday at $65.953, up $3.703.