By Jim Shrine

Myriad Genetics Inc. branched off from its genomics focus through the formation of a subsidiary that will concentrate on discovery of therapeutic lead compounds.

The wholly owned subsidiary, already up and running, is called Myriad Pharmaceuticals Inc. and will be based at the same facilities in Salt Lake City as the parent company. Its formation was based on the company¿s protein interaction technology called ProNet.

¿We think we can accomplish what we¿re setting out to do in terms of generating lead compounds with a fairly small staff, a dozen or so people, and with the resources and technologies we already have here,¿ said William Hockett, Myriad¿s director of corporate communications. ¿We¿re not looking at a major scale-up, but a marginal increase that should not increase the overall burn rate.¿

The ProNet technology has been in use about a year and a half and already is partnered with three large pharmaceutical companies. It entails a bioinformatics platform that includes a database of human proteins and the proteins with which they interact. It is based on yeast 2-hybrid technology and allows for each protein and its interacting partners to be followed through a disease pathway or network, so points of interaction become potential drug targets.

¿We noticed we¿ve been generating a lot of data and potential lead targets,¿ Hockett said, ¿and Myriad feels we can best exploit this potential by establishing our own effort.¿

The idea, he said, is that Myriad will generate lead compounds and a series of compounds around that lead, do initial work in areas such as toxicity and assessing efficacy, and then partner them up with a pharmaceutical company in exchange for up-front payments along with milestone and royalty considerations.

¿People understand Myriad has a diagnostics focus but sometimes we get pigeon-holed as a diagnostics company even though there are a number of other important things we do,¿ Hockett said. ¿This is another way to emphasize that aspect to investors. We saw a way to create value for the company and the shareholders.

¿ProNet has been more productive than maybe we thought it would be at this time. We had high hopes for ProNet but it has surpassed those.¿

President of the subsidiary is Adrian Hobden, formerly director of biotechnology ventures at London-based Glaxo Wellcome plc. He had recently joined Myriad as head of its pharmaceuticals effort. A 50,000-square-foot addition to Myriad¿s facility is close to being ready, and the subsidiary will operate out of a portion of that.

¿We will finance it initially ourselves, but we do expect to bring in corporate partners to finance the new subsidiary,¿ Hockett said. ¿We¿re in discussions now [with potential partners].¿

The ProNet technology already has been partnered with Bayer Corp., of Pittsburgh; Schering AG, of Berlin; and Monsanto Co., of St. Louis.

Bayer, the first company to access ProNet, is paying Myriad up to $54 million in a collaboration on drug targets related to dementia and depression. Separately, the companies have been collaborating since 1995 to discover genes for obesity, asthma and osteoporosis. That deal recently was lengthened by two years and $12 million, bringing it to a seven-year, $83 million collaboration.

The Monsanto collaboration is a $15 million, two-year deal that is focused on two undisclosed disease areas.

The deal with Schering gave Myriad a co-promotion right and the potential for 50 percent of profits in North America on ProNet-developed drugs. That collaboration involves several therapeutic targets and is valued at up to $51 million.

Myriad¿s stock (NASDAQ:MYGN) fell 12.5 cents Tuesday to close at $9.25 per share. n