By Mary Welch

Aurora Biosciences Corp. received an undisclosed payment for reaching a milestone in its efforts to develop an automated master compound store (AMCS) for the Parke-Davis Research division of Warner-Lambert Co.

The milestone was based on progress made by San Diego-based Aurora in the advancement of AMCS subsystems and design of the system's database architecture.

The AMCS is a "big bunch of hardware but, actually, over half the project is database management and information technology," said Tim Rink, Aurora's chairman, CEO and president. "It manages a variety of chemical storage formats, from a solid little powder right to the highest density storage plates."

Rink said the system "allows Warner-Lambert to control the library globally, and relate it back to the high-throughput screening database."

The $9 million agreement, signed last August, calls for Aurora to build the AMCS system, which is used for long-term housing of chemical and biological compounds under environmental control. It provides global monitoring systems to track compound utilization, expiration and availability.

Progress to date includes sign-off by Warner-Lambert, of Morris Plains, N.J., on key subsystems, including plate replication and hit profiling; design of subsystems for plate handling; databases for tracking compounds, library management, ordering of samples and user interface; and plans for integration and automation of all units.

The hardware takes up about 2,500 square feet of space, and Parke-Davis is constructing a new building at its Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters to house the AMCS when it is delivered, sometime in the fourth quarter of this year.

Kevin Tang, an analyst with BT Alex. Brown Inc., in New York, said Aurora's relationship with Warner-Lambert is "fantastic. It's a two-part deal. The big one is with the high-throughput screening, and then they were able to do another deal for the AMCS. It shows a very major relationship, and indicates that Warner-Lambert is looking to Aurora to be their key technology provider for high-throughput screening."

For Aurora, the relationship with Warner-Lambert is exactly what the company had in mind when it formed in 1995, said Harry Stylli, senior vice president of screen technology and new technology ventures.

"The key part has been to build an information factory," he said. "We want to provide solutions that will extract value out of the genomics field in high-throughput screening and high-throughput compound profiling. Parke-Davis was the first to fully utilize our technology and services."

As part of its relationship with Parke-Davis, which began with a deal in 1997 worth up to $65 million, Aurora trains and collaborates with Parke-Davis staff, and installs high-throughput screening at the corporate headquarters. Aurora has a team of scientists assigned to screen compounds for Parke-Davis. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 24, 1997 p. 1.)

Tang said Aurora "over the last three to four years has invested tremendous amounts to develop the ultimate drug screening technology platform. It is the best platform out there. It's the next generation platform. Aurora's technology has the potential to relieve one of the pharmaceutical industry's greatest productivity bottlenecks. They're at exactly the right time."

The company's ultra-high-throughput screening system (UHTSS) for drug discovery is expected to be operational this year for Aurora, with final delivery to syndicate partners in 2000. It is designed to generate a 10-to-100-fold increase in the rate at which libraries of diverse chemical compounds can be screened against various biological targets.

The UHTSS will have the capability of screening more than 100,000 compounds per day with over 2,400 re-tests, accessed from a store of more than 1 million compounds. The integrated technology will comprise a portfolio of proprietary fluorescent assay technologies and the capability for assay miniaturization and automation.

Aurora also has collaborations with Merck & Co., of Whitehouse Station, N.J.; Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., of New York; and Eli Lilly and Co., of Indianapolis. "The company has made significant progress toward leveraging its technology base broadly across the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries," Tang said. "We estimate that the company's current collaborators have committed more than $115 million in revenues to Aurora."

Stylli said the company is "really inside the guts of the large pharmaceutical companies. We are helping define the drug-discovery business rules."