By Mary Welch

Orquest Inc. and Biopharm GmbH signed a deal with Sulzer Spine-Tech worth up to $25 million to develop and commercialize a bone growth factor product that potentially could eliminate the need for an autograft during spinal surgery.

"We have been working with Biopharm for a number of years so we have a continuing relationship," said Peter Weissman, marketing manager for Orquest. "This is the first collaboration that evaluates our proprietary matrix material with their growth factors."

Orquest, of Mountain View, Calif., and Biopharm, based in Heidelberg, Germany, will share any future milestone payments.

The four-year agreement provides Sulzer Spine-Tech the exclusive worldwide distribution rights (except in Japan) to commercialize this integrated product for use in all spinal surgery applications. Sulzer is a subsidiary of Sulzer Medica of Winterthur, Switzerland.

The new product combines MP52, a recombinant novel bone protein developed by Biopharm, with Orquest's Healos Bone Graft Substitute. Healos is designed to act synergistically with the osteoinductive activity of MP52.

Healos is designed to reduce the pain and time associated with spinal fusion surgery. Approved in Europe, it is currently in U.S. clinical trials. The Healos Bone Graft Substitute mimics the inherent properties of natural bone. Like bone, it is entirely replaced by newly formed bone as part of the natural healing process.

"Healos is the first synthetic product shown to be as clinically effective as autograft in spinal fusion procedures," said Steve Carlson, vice president of marketing, sales and operations for Orquest.

The new product, Healos/MP52, is targeted to be used in interbody spinal fusion cages as well as traditional pedicle instrument systems. Sulzer plans to take the product into clinical trials both in the U.S. and Europe in early 2000.

"What we're potentially looking at is a product that will replace autografting or eliminating the need to harvest the patient's own bone during spinal surgery," said Weissman. "By eliminating autograft, the costs are expected to be lower due to reduced operating time, less blood loss, elimination of site complications and shorter hospital stays. In addition, the harvesting of the bone cells is painful. This is an off-the-shelf product."

Founded in 1994, Orquest is focused on merging biotechnology with material sciences and tissue biology in order to foster bone and cartilage regeneration. Orquest is concentrating its efforts on the rapidly growing segments of orthopedics including spine, fracture repair and cartilage regeneration, each of which represents more than a $1 billion opportunity, Weissman said. The company has one approved product (Healos) and three in the clinic. Its other proprietary platform technology is Ossigel, an injectable formulation designed to accelerate the healing of fractures.

A private company, Orquest has raised more than $30 million from venture capitalists.