By Randall Osborne

In a five-year deal that promises about $50 million and could be worth more, Aurora Biosciences Inc. entered into a technology-access agreement with Pfizer Inc.

"These are real dollars," said Stuart Collinson, president of San Diego-based Aurora.

Aurora will provide scientists as well as automated systems - including those for compound storage, high-throughput screening and multiple ion channel lead discovery platforms and development stations - at New York-based Pfizer's research facilities worldwide.

Along with the $50 million contract amount, Aurora could get funding, if Pfizer exercises options to enlarge the research team or buy more instruments or subsystems. Aurora may also receive milestone payments or profit-sharing related to commercializing compounds identified through assays developed in the program.

The larger of Aurora's earlier agreements have involved $25 million to $35 million over three to five years. "In scope as well as dollars, this one exceeds any other arrangement we've had with a pharmaceutical company," Collinson said. "Some of our other customers have gone on to buy other parts of our technologies, but Pfizer bought it up front. We have agreements with seven of the larger pharmaceutical companies," he added, including, most recently, F. Hoffman-La Roche, of Basel, Switzerland, and Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc., of Bridgewater, N.J.

Aurora's platform includes fluorescence assays, functional genomics GenomeScreen program, and systems that miniaturize and automate assays within an integrated system that is computer-controlled. The tools are designed to sift libraries of compounds and find those that could lead to new drugs.

Collinson said that, although "lots of provisos" come with any major agreement, the $50 million is assured as long as Aurora meets its end of the bargain, and "there are additional assays, and things like that, but we are not including them in the $50 million."

Aurora intends to pursue its business plan of providing technology, rather than pursue its own drug development - at least for the foreseeable future, Collinson said.

"You can never say never," he said. "[Drug development] is always an option for a company like this, but our resources are fully committed to providing technology for which customers are willing to pay a considerable amount of money."

Aurora disclosed the Pfizer deal after trading closed Tuesday. The company's stock (NASDAQ:ABSC) ended the day at $5.125, up $0.125.