By Jim Shrine

Special To BioWorld Today

Genome Therapeutics Corp. (GTC) said its asthma genetics program with Schering-Plough Corp. is ahead of schedule, and the companies have enlarged the program as well as moved up their time lines.

"Over the past year-and-a-half, going on two years, we built a program from scratch," Peter Lomedico, GTC's vice president of human genetics, told BioWorld Today. "We've made a lot more progress in a defined period of time than we originally planned for. Schering [-Plough] decided it was a real opportunity to increase the size of the program."

Neither GTC, of Waltham, Mass., nor Schering-Plough, of Madison, N.J., has disclosed many specifics on the status of research in the potentially $67 million deal, but progressing faster than the original contract's four-to-six year term is expected to let GTC realize earlier the $22.5 million licensing and research portion of the deal. The collaboration started in December 1997.

GTC achieved at least two collaboration milestones this year, one related to genetic mapping and the other undisclosed. Through its fiscal year ending in August, GTC received $12 million in research funding and milestone payments.

The company is using high-throughput positional cloning, genomics sequencing and bioinformatics technologies to identify genes and associated proteins implicated in asthma, a disease the company said will afflict nearly 15 million people in the U.S. this year.

Robert Hennessey, GTC's chairman, president and CEO, said in a prepared statement the companies "have completed accumulation of extensive family resources, collected valuable genetic data and identified chromosomal regions for intensive gene discovery exploration."

GTC and Schering-Plough have two other ongoing collaborations. One, begun in December 1995, pertains to drug-resistant bacteria and is potentially worth $43.5 million, with $20 million guaranteed. The other, a September 1997 deal, focuses on antifungals and is worth up to $33 million. Schering-Plough also is one of five subscribers to GTC's PathoGenome Database.

Lomedico said Schering-Plough "recognizes that using human genetics to get to disease genes, though a bit of a long process and one that takes an investment, can pay off in a big way. The power of human genetics is when you identify a disease gene, the target validation issues are removed. That's a big advantage. You have a lot more confidence when you take a target out of human genetics and move into drug discovery.

"Even though the pace of new deals [in this area] have dropped a little bit, there is still intense interest from pharmaceutical companies in this approach," he added.

The company's stock (NASDAQ:GENE) closed Thursday at $3.75, up $0.625. n