By Randall Osborne

As part of a collaboration worth more than $70 million, Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. said partner Hoffman-La Roche Inc. has identified a lead obesity gene for drug development, triggering a milestone payment of an undisclosed amount.

"We've made steady and significant progress," said Clare Midgley, spokeswoman for Cambridge, Mass.-based Millennium. The two companies teamed up four years ago to find therapeutics for obesity and Type II diabetes. (See BioWorld Today, March 30, 1994, p. 1.)

The next step is high-throughput screening to identify small molecules that act on the protein encoded by the gene.

"That has already started," Midgley said.

In a press release, Millennium said the gene has met the criteria for lead gene status, but did not say when the gene was discovered.

"You wouldn't want to assume it has been recently," Midgley said.

Advances made in the collaboration with Nutley, N.J.-based Roche, a subsidiary of Basel, Switzerland-based Hoffman-La Roche AG, include identifications of OB-R, the receptor that mediates the effect of leptin; of a weight regulation pathway that involves the melanocortin-4 receptor (a G-coupled receptor expressed in the brain); of the tub gene, associated with adult onset obesity; and of uncoupling protein homologue (UCPH), a protein involved in human energy expenditure and weight modulation.

For the gene encoding UCPH, Millennium said Tuesday it was awarded a composition of matter patent.

Midgley declined to characterize the milestone payment from Roche, but the agreement called for most of the payments to come in the form of research funding.

"That would still be true, but it always had a component in what we would receive for downstream clinical milestones," she said. "It's an important milestone that Roche is moving this forward."

Although most discoveries made so far have been in the field of obesity, Type II diabetes is still a subject of the partnership, Midgley said. Because the two conditions are related, "there's a lot of leverage," she added.

Millennium's stock (NASDAQ:MLNM) closed Tuesday at $17.437, up $0.312. *