By Mary Welch

United Therapeutics Corp., fresh off early positive data from two Phase III studies, purchased 15 percent of Synergy Pharmaceuticals Inc. for $5 million, and gained an option to acquire the rest of the company.

What adds to the interest of the deal is that United Therapeutics (UTC), of Silver Spring, Md., also acquired worldwide exclusive rights to antiviral drug compounds developed at the University of Oxford and G.D. Searle & Co., of Skokie, Ill., the pharmaceutical division of St.-Louis-based Monsanto Co.

The exclusive license agreement was signed between Unither Pharmaceuticals Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of UTC, and Synergy, formerly known as IgX Corp., which owned the licensed rights to the antiviral compounds. The compounds are in the preclinical stage of development.

"It's a good deal for us," said Fred Hadeed, UTC's chief financial officer. "These compounds that we licensed appear to be very promising in hepatitis C and other indications. There is no cure in those markets, and we may have a chance to find a cure. If we're successful, it'll be very profitable for us. We're always looking for opportunities like that."

The in-licensed drug compounds are designed to prevent the 3-dimensional folding of all viruses that bud from the endoplasmic reticulum within cells. These viruses include the causes of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, dengue and Japanese encephalitis

UTC paid Edison, N.J.-based Synergy in both cash and stock for its 15 percent of the company. The stock transaction represents less than 1 percent of UTC's shares, Hadeed said. "We have not released much information about the option to purchase the rest of the company," he said. "We have a lot of flexibility there. It's not like we're in a rush to buy it or have to be in a rush."

Currently, UTC has 18.5 million shares outstanding.

Another benefit of the purchase is that two of Synergy's top scientific experts, Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg and Raymond Dwek, co-founder of Oxford GlycoSciences plc, of Oxford, UK, joined Unither's scientific advisory board. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the protein marker for hepatitis B virus, and Dwek is also the director of the Glycobiology Institute at the University of Oxford.

"These are outstanding, internationally known scientists and we are very happy that they have joined our board," Hadeed said.

UTC recently reported early positive results from two Phase III studies of Uniprost, its non-injectable drug for pulmonary hypertension. Formerly known at UT-15, Uniprost is a stable structural analogue of the naturally occurring molecule prostacyclin, levels of which are low in the lung blood vessels of people with pulmonary hypertension. (See BioWorld Today, March 28, 2000, p. 1.)

Uniprost was shown effective in the preliminary analysis, improving to a statistically significant degree patients' ability to exercise, which was the primary endpoint.

"An analysis of the data is ongoing, and as we speak we are drafting the NDA [new drug application]," Hadeed said. "We will file it in the third quarter, and hope for approval next year."

The company has two other Phase III trials under way, both with Beraprost, an oral formulation of prostacyclin, which is produced in the body's blood vessels to keep them dilated and free of platelet clustering. One trial, which started in January, is for peripheral vascular disease and involves more than 688 patients in the U.S. The first Phase III trial took place in Europe and produced highly significant results, Hadeed said. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 2, 2000, p. 1.)

The second Phase III trial with Beraprost in patients with pulmonary hypertension was started Feb. 24 and will last 12 months.

United Therapeutics' stock (NASDAQ:UTHR) closed Friday at $77.75, up $4.375.