By Mary Welch

Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. signed a research and licensing deal worth up to $33 million with Novartis Pharma AG to validate and develop assays for anti-infective targets and identify new compounds for development.

Cubist, based in Cambridge, Mass., granted a non-exclusive license to Novartis to use its Validation In Vivo of Targets and Assays for Anti-Infectives (VITA) technology, and exclusive licenses to specific targets, assays and compounds. Under certain circumstances, Cubist will have co-exclusive rights with Novartis to particular targets and assays.

Under the agreement, Novartis, based in Basel, Switzerland, will make a $4 million up-front payment and provide research funding for the life of the three-year deal. Cubist will receive milestone payments for high-throughput screens delivered to Novartis, and development milestone payments for each resulting product.

If two products are developed, Cubist's financial compensation could exceed $33 million.

"Novartis is starting an infectious disease group, and Cubist will be developing high-throughput screening assays using our VITA technology," said Susan Whoriskey, senior director of scientific licensing for Cubist. "Novartis will take those assays and screen them with their compounds, and we can screen them against our compounds within this collaboration. If a product comes from the Cubist libraries, there is a different milestone payment and royalties plan than if it came from Novartis' libraries."

Novartis To Take Over At Lead Optimization Stage

After compounds are identified, Novartis takes the project forward to lead optimization and, ultimately, development.

VITA converts genomics information into data, letting researchers understand the role a specific target plays during an infection and prioritize the most valuable protein therapeutic targets from clinically important pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. Validated targets can then be enabled for high-hroughput screens to identify leads for medicinal chemistry programs.

The technology evaluates the potential of a target in a way that emulates how an antibiotic attacks an infection, so compensatory mechanisms in the host - or protective mechanisms in the pathogen - can be identified early. VITA induces the expression of a peptide in the pathogen that will inhibit a specific protein target. If, upon peptide induction, the animal survives the infection, the target is validated as essential to the pathogen's function.

"It used to be a numbers game; now it's gotten more sophisticated and is about screening qualified targets," Whoriskey said. "Researchers today have too much genomics information in front of them. They are completely overwhelmed by the volume of it, and they lack a context in which to evaluate the information."

Cubist's stock (NASDAQ:CBST) closed Tuesday at $4.50, up $0.25.