By Karen Pihl-Carey

Myriad Genetics Inc. has secured $33.5 million in a partnership with the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute (NADI) to research cereal crop genomics.

A substantial portion of the money will be paid up front to Salt Lake City-based Myriad, with the rest disbursed for research funding over the two-year partnership period. None of the payments will be based on milestones. More specific details were not disclosed.

Any resulting profits from the research will be shared equally on a 50/50 basis, a major plus for Myriad, which is trying to focus more on profit-sharing and move away from royalties, said its president and CEO, Peter Meldrum.

Together, the two parties hope to discover the genetic structure of cereal crops, such as rice, maize, wheat, barley and oats.

"The information generated in the collaboration will be used by Novartis and we will co-market that to other major agricultural companies throughout the world to improve the quality of grain and to increase crop yields," Meldrum told BioWorld Today. "It is our hope that this eventually will lead to the development of healthier and safer food products."

With a number of companies vying for the partnership, Myriad was chosen at least partly because its "state-of-the-art capillary sequencing capability is second to none," said Steven Briggs, head of NADI, based in La Jolla, Calif.

Myriad's new ultra-high-throughput facility, which is based on its capillary DNA sequencing instruments, can produce large quantities of DNA information. It is using the technology to discover animal, microbial and plant genomes of all sizes.

"We were very fortunate," Meldrum said, "that Myriad rose to the top and that we had the genomic tools to tackle a project of this size."

NADI came into existence when the Novartis Research Foundation, part of Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland, dedicated $600 million in July 1998 to fund agricultural genomics research and development. (See BioWorld Today, July 23, 1998, p. 1.)

The partnership with Myriad will complement other initiatives in genomics, and NADI will publish conclusions openly, providing access to scientists outside the institute, Briggs said.

Meldrum hopes the partnership will stretch beyond the two-year time period.

"I really view this as only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "DNA is DNA, whether it's plant, animal or human. We're excited about the agricultural opportunities, but there are equally exciting opportunities in the areas of animal or microorganism genetic discovery."

Novartis AG and Myriad also are collaborating in the effort to discover and sequence cardiovascular disease genes. The companies last year discovered CHD-1, a major gene associated with heart disease, Meldrum said.

Myriad has a number of other collaborations and agreements in the works, starting with its partnership with Bayer Corp., of Pittsburgh, to discover genes for asthma, osteoporosis and obesity. The $71 million alliance was expanded into a $137 million deal through September 2002, adding depression and dementia to the program.

Eli Lilly and Co., of Indianapolis, funded research that led to Myriad's discovery and sequencing of the BRCA1 breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility gene, and Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, is using Myriad's protein interaction technology, ProNet, to explore disease pathways and discover new therapeutic targets.

Myriad's ProNet technology also is being used by Schering AG, of Berlin. Meldrum said that deal, started in October 1998 and worth $51 million, was Myriad's first to focus on 50/50 profit sharing, rather than royalties.

Schering-Plough Corp., of Madison, N.J., is collaborating with Myriad to discover genes and develop therapies for prostate cancer and other cancers. Together, the companies discovered the MMAC1 cancer gene, which is responsible for all brain cancers and has mutated in nearly two-thirds of advanced prostate cancer, Meldrum said.

Myriad stock (NASDAQ:MYGN) closed at $14 Thursday, up $1.