By Mary Welch

Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. has identified 18 novel drug targets and moved four of them into high-throughput screening at the one-year mark of its research alliance with Bayer AG. The work took less than eight months.

"We're in excellent shape," said Sally McCraven, director of corporate communications for Cambridge, Mass.-based Millennium. "To have four targets now in screening and six more out of that 18 ready for screening by the end of the year shows that good progress is being made."

The targets are all within the seven areas of the collaboration's focus: cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, pain, liver fibrosis, hematology and viral infections. The drug targets will be screened using Bayer's robot screening technology, which can handle the testing of more than 100,000 substances daily.

Last year, the two companies entered what was, at the time, the largest pharmaceutical drug discovery collaboration. In return for $465 million - including a $96.6 million equity investment - Millennium agreed to identify and validate 225 new drug targets for screening by Bayer. Out of the 225 targets, Bayer, of Leverkusen, Germany, will select 10 percent of them for its own drug discovery purposes. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 24, 1998, p. 1.)

"While Bayer selects the targets that are most important to its own efforts and priorities, the remaining targets are returned to Millennium for our own discovery efforts," she said.

The coalition is pursuing a production-oriented approach, based on genomics research, to rapidly move compounds toward clinical trials. Millennium synthesizes large-scale genetics, genomics, automation, informatics, and drug discovery technologies that allows it to identify simultaneously thousands of new genes, investigate their relevancy to drug discovery and perform focused searches for disease-relevant targets and leads.

"Identifying 18 targets in the first year is very good," McCraven said. "Obviously, the number of targets will increase annually but we will definitely reach the 225 targets over the next four years of the collaboration."

Millennium's stock (NASDAQ:MLNM) closed Wednesday at $65.125, up $2.125.