By Randall Osborne

Using a more precise sputum assay to measure biochemical changes that will identify patients in early stages of cancer, Chiron Corp. plans to collaborate with Miravant Medical Technologies on studies to detect lung cancer and treat it early.

Chiron, of Emeryville, Calif., and Miravant, of Santa Barbara, Calif., have signed a binding letter of intent for the partnership. Chiron's assay is being developed in clinical trials.

"[The assay] doesn't rely on just morphological changes in the sample," said Ken Hirsch, manager of the project for Chiron. "It detects the over expression of a protein, and these changes predate the morphological changes."

Once the Chiron assay is used to screen patients, Miravant's PhotoPoint — a procedure under development that uses light-activated drugs to destroy malignant cells — could be employed as treatment in clinical trials.

PhotoPoint is a potential outpatient procedure in which the patient is given a photoselective drug that collects in rapidly dividing cells. The drug destroys target cells when the cells are exposed to a particular wavelength of light.

Under terms of the agreement, Chiron would work exclusively with Miravant in photodynamic therapy for cancer.

Miravant has treated the planned number of patients in Phase III trials for cutaneous metastatic breast cancer, and has Phase II/III trials ongoing for primary skin cancer and AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma. In Phase II trials for cutaneous metastatic breast cancer and skin cancers, more than 90 percent of tumors responded to treatment.

The company, formerly known as PDT Inc., also has completed early clinical studies for age-related macular degeneration and plans clinical trials for psoriasis, lung cancer and prostate cancer. *

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