By Don Long

On schedule to develop at least two new collaborations a year, Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. (RPI) has just finalized an agreement with Parke-Davis giving that company access to RPI's Target Validation System, which identifies genes having the greatest potential for therapeutic use and commercialization.

As in the two other gene targeting pacts thus far developed by the Boulder, Colo., company, RPI will use its ribozyme technology as a tool for analyzing gene functions. Ribozymes, a form of RNA, can inhibit gene expression and determine the level of that expression. Using RNA and other phenotypic in vitro and in vivo assays, the technique identifies those genes associated with disease and disease pathways.

Ralph Christoffersen, RPI's president and CEO, said the companies agreed not to discuss the financial terms of the deal.

But he did contrast the pact with Parke-Davis, a division of Morris Plains, N.J.-based Warner-Lambert Co., with the collaboration RPI signed last year with Schering AG, of Berlin, Germany. That pact calls for Schering to pay RPI $25 million over the next five years and make additional "success payments," giving the deal a potential value of $60 million.

Christoffersen said the Parke Davis deal is "not that large" since it is more focused in scope. He characterized it as a partnership in which a company asks RPI to use its targeting methods to study "a few [gene prospects] they have selected that they think are interesting."

At the other end of the spectrum is the collaboration with Schering, Christoffersen said. Here, the company "will provide a broad spectrum of genes and ask us to do an initial screening."

Two New Partners Sought Each Year

Christoffersen noted that RPI's steady progress in developing new collaborations for its targeting system has served to validate the company "as a real business." Along with the pact with Schering AG, and another with Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., the Parke-Davis agreement gives RPI its third target validation partnership. And the company has set its sights on developing two new partnerships each year, Christoffersen said.

Since the agreement with Parke-Davis was initially announced last December, he predicted the signing of two more gene targeting collaborations in 1998.

"We feel we can do this for the next several years, both in terms of the resources we have and likely partners out there," Christoffersen said.

He added the company is attempting to put "equal focus" on its two divisions: the Target Validation business, and its product development business. In the product development category, RPI has partnered with several companies to develop HIV drugs, ribozyme-centered drugs and diagnostics, and RNA and chimeric oligonucleotides.

RPI's stock (NASDAQ:RZYM) closed Friday at $6.25, up $0.25.*