SYDNEY — Australian flu-cure company Biota Holdings Ltd. has added what the company says is a promising treatment for memory-related disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, to its growing portfolio of research projects.

Hugh Niall, chief executive of the Melbourne-based Biota, announced recently the company signed an agreement with the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, also in Melbourne, to license a neuroactive compound discovered at the institute.

Discovered by the director of the institute, Frederick Mendelsohn, the compound has shown some promise in trials with rats, enabling them to recover lost memories.

Biota will support further work by the institute in designing a drug based on the lead and will commercialize the research, with its efforts to include finding a major development partner for the product.

Mechanism Of Action Not Known

Few additional details were available about the deal or about the drug itself from Biota, which is best known to date for its flu-cure product, Zanamivir, now in stage III trials with Glaxo Wellcome plc, of London.

Phillip Reece, research and development director at Biota, said the molecule targeted for Alzheimer's disease is patented, but at this stage Biota prefers not to disclose any more than it has to about the molecule's structure.

He said the molecule is believed to attach itself to a receptor in neurons in the brain, but so far little is known about the mechanism involved — all they really know is that it has shown considerable promise in animal studies.

But the main target disease of the new molecule, Alzheimer's, is itself a mysterious disease, with little known about how it works or progresses. Doctors cannot even reliably diagnose the disease.

Deposition of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain cells and the reduced production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine have been suggested as key factors in the disease, and there are companies working on treatments which address those factors.

However, the only approved therapies to date for Alzheimer's disease are the cholinesterase inhibitors Cognex and Aricept. Neither is effective for all patients and both have side effects, he said.

Reece also declined to reveal the amount Biota is paying to the Howard Florey Institute, but commented that the amount is not large.

Niall said the new project is outside Biota's focus areas of viral respiratory disease and cancer, but the company was attracted to the project because it represents a unique opportunity in an area in which there is an urgent medical need.

Since largely handing on the Zanamivir project to Glaxo, Biota has built up a range of projects, including an on-the-spot flu-diagnostic kit being developed by Biostar Inc., of Boulder, Colo. (now merging with Denver-based Cortech Inc.), using its flu-cure technology. (See BioWorld International, Dec. 31, 1997, p. 1.)

In addition, Biota is involved in the development of an insulin tablet and a drug for prostate cancer. (See BioWorld International, July 23, 1997, p. 1, and May 21, 1997, p. 5.)