SYDNEY, Australia -- French life-sciences giant Rhone-Poulenc has agreed to pay listed Australian company BioDiscovery Ltd. A$2.5 million (US$1.5 million) over several years for samples from thousands of Australian insects.

The samples will be screened by Phone-Poulenc Agro for useful molecules, mainly for agricultural applications but also for possible pharmaceutical treatments. In addition, the company recently announced initial, successful results from Phase I/II safety trials of a new vaccine for juvenile Type I diabetes, adapted from a virus used to treat cattle disease in Australia's Northern Territory.

BioDiscovery managing director Joan Dawes said the trials involve 30 juveniles recently diagnosed with diabetes, and are still continuing with additional patients being enrolled. The juvenile diabetes virus causes an auto-immune reaction that kills the insulin-producing beta cells in the kidneys. The main focus of the trial is to determine whether the vaccine triggers a second form of autoimmune disorder, an antibody-dependent autoimmunity.

The vaccine is known to be safe in healthy people as it has been injected into abattoir workers in the Northern Territory for years, as a precaution against the workers contracting the cattle disease known as Q fever.

Scientists led by Kevin Lafferty at the Australian National University, in Canberra, discovered that the cattle vaccine can be used to prevent diabetes by stimulating the immune system. Lafferty previously observed that mice raised in dirty surroundings are less likely to develop diabetes than mice raised in clean surroundings, suggesting that a stimulated immune system would help clear up diabetes.

A re-engineered version of the vaccine has now been tried in engineered mice, with results that Dawes says are very promising. No undesirable side effects have been observed and, more importantly, the vaccine has not triggered an antibody-dependent autoimmunity.

Dawes said that, if the vaccine is effective, the company will have to look for a development partner to take the vaccine further, especially as the tests will have to be done overseas. One major advantage BioDiscovery will have in conducting the ongoing Phase I/II trials will be the cash injection the company will receive from its deal with Rhone-Poulenc for insect extracts. Under the agreement, Rhone-Poulenc Agro BioDiscovery will make an up-front payment of A$500,000 plus two more annual payments of the same amount, and further payments depending on what the French company finds in the samples.

The company announcement stated that Rhone-Poulenc estimates the additional payments can be in excess of $1 million. BioDiscovery has rights to an insect library set up in a joint venture with a government research group, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) Division of Entomology.

Under the deal, Rhone-Poulenc will have access to that library, but BioDiscovery will also pay CSIRO to collect additional insect samples in the field. *

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