By Debbie Strickland

It isn't forming a separate business unit, but Genentech Inc. is expanding its sales force to handle oncology products.

In the past the South San Francisco biotech giant's marketing efforts have focused on endocrinological and cardiovascular drugs (its top moneymaker is the clot-dissolver Activase). But the company rented a booth at last weekend's meeting of the American Society of Clinicial Oncology to tout what it calls a "new BioOncology initiative" comprising one approved product and four in the pipeline.

Genentech is entering the oncology market with Roferon-A (Interferon alfa-2a), a biological response modifier approved in the U.S. for several indications: hairy-cell leukemia, AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma and Philadelphia Chromosome Positive chronic myelogenous leukemia.

"Entering the oncology market with Roferon-A is particularly exciting," said Arthur Levinson, president and CEO, "because, although it was marketed until recently by Hoffmann-La Roche, it is a product of an early research collaboration between the two companies."

Genentech's BioOncology initiative focuses on monoclonal antibody treatments for cancer, which have been touted as magic-bullet cancer fighters for two decades, but have yet to reach the U.S. marketplace.

Genentech is aiming to be the groundbreaker with its C2B8 antibody, rituximab, which has been submitted to the FDA under a biologics license application shared with IDEC Pharmaceuticals, of San Diego. The drug is under consideration as a single-agent therapy for the treatment of relapsed low-grade or follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Two additional monoclonal antibodies in development for cancer therapy are HER-2, in Phase III for metastatic breast cancer in patients who overexpress HER2 proteins; and VEGF, in Phase I for various solid cancer tumors.

The company also has a blood-cell growth factor, TPO, in Phase II testing for blood-platelet stimulation. *