By Randall Osborne

After agreeing to sell one drug development deal for hepatitis C (HCV) to E.I. DuPont & Co. as part of the buyout related to their joint venture, Merck & Co. has entered another partnership to find HCV treatments — this one worth up to $50 million for Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc., the antisense company.

Under terms of the three-year deal, Isis gets a one-time technology access fee, annual research support and milestones as compounds move through clinical development.

"We think, given the way people calculate the dollars in these [agreements], it's a $40 million to $50 million deal," said Lynne Parshall, vice president and chief financial officer for Carlsbad, Calif.-based Isis. She declined to break down the terms further.

Chemists from both companies will design, synthesize and evaluate small molecules, which Merck will screen in enzymatic assays to identify hepatitis C replication inhibitors.

"We've already kicked off the initial portion of the work, designing the specific small molecules," Parshall told BioWorld Today.

Merck, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., has the right to commercialize drugs arising from the collaboration, and Isis will retain rights to use, as part of its antisense program, any technology developed in the deal.

Royalties for Isis are included in the agreement.

Last month, Merck disclosed its agreement with DuPont, of Wilmington, Del., for DuPont to buy Merck's half of their joint venture, DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co., for $2.6 billion in cash.

In that deal, DuPont gets control of the joint venture's $25 million collaboration with Signal Pharmaceuticals Inc., of San Diego, to develop drugs inhibiting gene-regulating targets of hepatitis C and HIV. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 13, 1998, p. 1, and May 21, 1998, p. 1.)

Also in May, Isis — which this spring filed the first antisense new drug application with the FDA — raised $15 million from an institutional investor.

As of March 31, Isis had $69.5 million in cash, with a net loss of $11.5 million for the quarter. The company's stock (NASDAQ:ISIP) closed Tuesday at $13.187, up $0.125. *