Paris - The French seed company Limagrain has spun off its molecular farming activities - the cultivation of genetically modified plants for the production of recombinant proteins with therapeutic applications - as a separate venture called Meristem Therapeutics. To ensure the new firm starts with sufficient financial resources, Limagrain has invited venture capitalists to invest in the business alongside it.

Negotiations with these potential investors are expected to conclude in the next few weeks and will leave Limagrain with an interest of “less than 50 percent“ in Meristem, said Laurence Peyronnet, managerial control executive at Meristem. The capital raised will enable Meristem to finance operations for the next three years. The company has a work force of about 40 and is currently burning some FFr50 million (US$8.75 million) per year on research and development.

The company said it intends to seek a stock market listing as early as 2001 and no later than 2003, on France's Nouveau Marché and/or Nasdaq. That would give it the capital required to establish full-scale production facilities, since its medium-term objective is to launch its first protein in 2003 and to start commercial sales a year or two later.

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Limagrain has demonstrated the viability of cultivating genetically modified tobacco to produce synthetic human hemoglobin and gastric lipase (used to treat digestive problems related to cystic fibrosis). But the research and development program inherited by Meristem is much more extensive than that, and Peyronnet said the company is in the process of rationalizing its research and development pipeline in order to focus on fewer pathologies.

At its premises in Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of central France, Meristem has established what it claims to be the first industrial extraction/purification plant complying with Good Manufacturing Practices standards for purifying kilograms of pharmaceutical grade recombinant protein from plants. Its facilities also include 3,000 square meters of laboratory space and 550 square meters of greenhouse, in which it cultivates genetically modified versions of tobacco and corn. While tobacco is useful for research purposes, it is not suitable for mass production, since it does not yield sufficient quantities of proteins, unlike corn or oil seed rape. Meristem said it is capable of managing the genetic transformation of various plants, depending on the proteins required.

The products being developed by Meristem include enzymes, blood-derived products and anti-infective proteins for the treatment of pathologies, such as digestive and respiratory diseases. It already has concluded a research collaboration agreement with the Parke-Davis division of Warner-Lambert Co., of Morris Plains, N.J., for the production of gastric lipase for treating digestive diseases, and Peyronnet said Meristem is negotiating other agreements with various pharmaceutical companies. In addition, it plans to establish an office on the West Coast of the U.S. from which to woo potential partners and customers in North America.

Limagrain is also involved in a plant genetics joint venture with Rhône Poulenc Agro, the agrobiology subsidiary of French chemical giant Rhône Poulenc, through its shareholding in Biogemma, a plant biotechnology firm it owns jointly with another seed company, Pau-Euralis, and financial institutions Unigrains and Sofiprotéol. Called Rhobio, the Lyon-based joint venture was set up in early 1997 and is developing new techniques for making plants resistant to disease. (See BioWorld International, April 29, 1998, p. 4.) *

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