By Jim Shrine

Magainin Pharmaceuticals Inc. formed its first partnership in asthma genomics, in a deal giving Genentech Inc. an option to continue the collaboration after researching the potential of a protein therapeutic targeting interleukin-9 (IL-9).

Genentech, of South San Francisco, purchased $2 million in Magainin stock at a premium and would pay up to $35 million to Magainin through commercialization, if Genentech decides to pursue development.

"The research program will last about a year," said Michael Dougherty, president and CEO of Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based Magainin. "We're trying to conduct a program evaluating the utility of a blocking antibody to IL-9. We think the IL-9 pathway is critical in the pathogenesis of asthma. Blocking it through an antibody would create a very useful product."

Genentech purchased the stock (NASDAQ:MAGN) at $3.22 per share, a 10 percent premium to the closing average in the 20 days before the deal. Magainin shares fell $0.187 cents per share Thursday, closing at $3.875.

"In terms of protein and antibody development, Genentech is the one of the premier companies," Dougherty said. "For that reason, they are an obvious candidate for a program like this."

Magainin's asthma program dates back to 1996, when molecular geneticist Roy Levitt joined the company with research he brought over from Johns Hopkins University. His preclinical data supporting the role of IL-9 and genes in its pathway in asthma have been widely published in scientific journals. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 25, 1997, p. 1.)

"This is the beginning of what hopefully will be a long-term collaboration with Genentech, and possibly the beginning of additional collaborations in the asthma genomics area," Dougherty said. "This is a protein- development arrangement. Clearly, we think a small-molecule approach would have great utility. There are also targets beyond IL-9 in our asthma gene database we may pursue collaborations upon."

Specific terms of the deal with Genentech, other than the $35 million total, have not been put into place, Dougherty said. What form any payments take would be negotiated later, if Genentech exercises its option to continue the collaboration after completion of the research phase. Research will be conducted at Genentech.

Mouse Studies Suggest IL-9's Link To Asthma Risk

Asthma cuts off, or cuts down, intake of air into the lungs. At the root of the airway constriction is inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness.

Transgenic mice studies have shown those that overproduced IL-9 had increased levels of bronchial hyperresponsivenes (BHR), lung eosinophilia and serum immunoglobulin E - all considered asthma risk factors - in response to antigens. Linkage studies in humans have shown the link between a genetic marker located near the IL-9 receptor and the presence of asthma and/or BHR.

Magainin's other advanced programs sprung from discoveries related to the natural host defense systems of animals. The lead product, pexiganan - originally discovered in the skin of the African clawed frog - is expected to be considered for approval by an FDA panel this spring. The product, an antibiotic for treating diabetic foot ulcers, is partnered with London-based SmithKline Beecham plc.

A second product, squalimine, is in Phase I studies in solid tumors. Phase II studies could start in the second quarter of this year, Dougherty said. Squalimine, found in the tissues of the dogfish shark, is believed to prevent formation of blood vessels needed for tumor growth. *