By Mary Welch

QLT PhotoTherapeutics Inc. raised $15.35 million in an offering of 1 million shares at $15.35 per share to fund an ongoing Phase III trial of Verteporfin and anticipated market launch of the light-activated compound for age-related macular degeneration (ARMD).

The trial, with 609 patients enrolled, should wind up by the end of the year or in January 1999, with an FDA submission for the photdynamic therapy planned in mid-1999. The Vancouver, British Columbia, company expects the product will be on the market by late 1999 or 2000.

ARMD is an ocular disease characterized by degenerative changes in the retina that may lead to the loss of central vision. It is the leading cause of adult-onset blindness, and the disease affects at least 10 percent of the U.S. population over 65. No drugs are approved for treatment of ARMD. QLT is partnered with Ciba Vision, the eye care unit of Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland, for development of Verteporfin, which is a benzoporphyrin derivative.

QLT's photodynamic therapy, which targets diseases associated with rapidly growing tissues, is a two-step process beginning with the intravenous administration of the drug, or phytosensitizer, that attaches to lipoproteins. Since cells undergoing rapid growth require a greater number of lipoproteins than non-dividing cells, the drug is quickly delivered in higher concentrations to the fast dividing cells.

The drug is then activated with a dose of light that causes conversion of normal oxygen found in tissue to a highly energized form that, in turn, causes cell death.

"The public offering — a private placement in the U.S. — will strengthen our balance sheet as we prepare the final phases to get approval and market Verteporfin," said Kenneth Galbraith, senior vice president and chief financial officer. "With this money, we will have about $70 million — U.S. dollars — in cash reserves. We also have some products down the pipeline that this money will go to fund."

QLT, Canada's third largest biotechnology company in terms of market capitalization, will have 27.5 million shares of stock outstanding after the placement. Four institutional investors participating in the financing are from the U.S., the rest from Canada. Nesbitt Burns Inc. and Scotia McLeod Inc., both of Toronto, underwrote the offering.

QLT's light-activated therapy Photofrin (porfimer sodium) is on the market for treatment of various cancers in the U.S., Canada, Japan and Europe.

Among products under development are treatments for cardiovascular diseases, and QLT is evaluating Verteporfin in other indications.

Earlier this month, the company reported positive data from Phase I trials of Verteporfin for psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The results showed the treatment was safe and well-tolerated and demonstrated potential for efficacy. Plans are to conduct a Phase II trial for psoriasis next year. QTL also intends to test Verteporfin as a treatment for early stages of Barrett's esophagus syndrome.

QLT PhotoTherapeutics' stock (NASDAQ:QLTIF) closed Friday at $16.297, up $0.047. *