By Debbie Strickland

Special To BioWorld Today

Corixa Corp. has acted on its ¿partner early and often¿ motto again by signing a $21.5 million agreement with Zambon SpA covering rights in various territories to products that emerge from an early-stage lung cancer antigen discovery program.

Seattle-based Corixa could receive more than $21.5 million in license fees, research funding and milestones, including the purchase of $2 million worth of Corixa common stock at a premium to the market price.

Zambon also will pay royalties on products marketed in territories covered in the agreement ¿ Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia and China. The Milan, Italy, pharmaceutical company¿s rights are exclusive in all those regions except China, where rights are shared with Corixa.

¿The net goal is to come up with a cocktail of antigens to be used in a vaccine,¿ said Mark McDade, Corixa¿s president and chief operating officer. ¿It is our belief that it will take more than one antigen, because certain people will express one antigen, while other people will express another one. The goal of the pharmaceutical company [such as Zambon] is to create one product for the masses, and a cocktail approach is the right one.¿

Corixa already has two cancer vaccines in Phase I clinical testing ¿ a Her2/neu vaccine for late-stage breast and ovarian cancer (partnered with SmithKline Beecham plc, of London), and an unpartnered Muc-1 peptide vaccine for breast, pancreatic and colon cancer. Other, earlier-stage cancer programs include vaccines for lymphoma and leukemia, as well as prostate, ovarian and colon cancers.

The lung cancer vaccine program is in early research, said Steven Gillis, Corixa¿s chairman and CEO, and it likely will be a couple of years before a lead product is identified and heads into the clinic. The company, he said, already has ¿some hits,¿ candidate antigens whose properties Corixa researchers are exploring further.

¿In terms of opportunity,¿ Gillis noted, lung cancer ¿is a very good target in which to get meaningful clinical data rapidly, given that there are a number of Stage III lung carcinoma patients who [following surgery and radiotherapy] are going to relapse within a short period of time ¿ a year on average. We think it¿s an excellent model system. If we vaccinate after surgery and radiotherapy, we would hope to prolong the period of time to relapse.¿

Strategy Shifts Heavy Lifting¿ To Partners

While some biotechnology firms wait to partner until clinical trial results come in, ¿our strategy is to partner everything,¿ McDade said. ¿You¿re constantly going to be seeing additional partnerships [for Corixa].¿

Following that plan shifts the ¿heavy lifting¿ of clinical trials to pharmaceutical partners, and allows Corixa to grow a ¿huge portfolio,¿ he said. ¿Our portfolio is deeper, and it keeps us stretched, but the stretching is taken up to a good degree by collaborative partners.¿ Corixa has more than half a dozen corporate partners.

The centerpiece collaboration is with SmithKline Beecham, which last October signed on for a potentially $200 million deal expansion that encompasses rights and options to an array of vaccine programs in infectious diseases and cancer, including the Her2/neu vaccine for late-stage breast and ovarian cancer. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 29, 1998, p. 1.)

Corixa, whose stock fell below $4 last September amid a widespread decline for biotech shares, has bounced back with a spate of good news that began with signing the new deal with SmithKline Beecham. The firm¿s shares (NASDAQ:CRXA) closed Monday at $13 per share, up 75 cents.

In February, the company completed the acquisition of Anergen Inc., of Redwood City, Calif., which brought compounds and related technology for selectively interrupting antigen presentation or inactivating T cells that mediate disease processes. Corixa gained research and clinical stage programs in rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

In the infectious disease realm, Corixa last month reported positive interim Phase I trial results for a therapeutic vaccine utilizing its vaccine adjuvant Leishmania elongation Initiation Factor. The LeIF-enhanced vaccine led to ¿noted improvement¿ in eight out of 12 patients treated for drug-resistant L. braziliensis infection.

The company landed a patent for LeIF in mid-March, and also has rights to recently issued patents for treating cancers that overexpress the Her-2/neu protein and for mammoglobin, a mammary-specific breast cancer protein.

Corixa in April obtained a $50 million line of credit to finance in-licensing and acquisitions to further fatten the pipeline. (See BioWorld Today, April 12, 1999, p. 1.) n