By Frances Bishopp

VIMRx Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Columbia University have agreed to a $30 million collaboration whereby VIMRx, through a new subsidiary, VIMRx Genomics Inc., will have an option for exclusive licensing of technology developed by The Columbia Genome Center (CGC).

VIMRx, of Wilmington, Del., will own 90 percent of the joint venture, VIMRx Genomics, and Columbia will own 10 percent, David Jackson, vice president and chief scientific officer at VIMRx, told BioWorld Today.

The collaboration will extend for five years with an option to be continued indefinitely. The company will gain exclusive rights to license recently discovered genes believed to be factors in select cancers and exclusive rights to future gene discoveries resulting from the research agreement.

The collaboration will seek to capitalize on new technology and information that has permitted the localization and identification of novel human genes associated with many genetically-based diseases.

"This is the first time Columbia has done something like this," Jackson said. "This is not a common structure and it represents a novel way of universities and industries getting together to commercialize the kind of technology that has developed in a university environment."

The CGC focuses on mapping, sequencing, gene discovery and technology development on the genomes of human and selected model organisms. CGC has advanced technology used in fine mapping of human chromosomes, generated a detailed cosmid-based map of human chromosome 13, fabricated highly representative normalized human DNA libraries and contributed to gene discovery.

"By collaborating with Columbia," Richard Dunning, president and CEO of VIMRx, told BioWorld, "we will work with gene discovery projects that will ultimately and hopefully lead to new diagnostics and new therapeutics for a lot of diseases where there continues to be significant unmet medical needs."

"We will try to commercially exploit them," Dunning said, "primarily through collaborations with other diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies that drive the traditional drug discovery process based on this technology."

The agreement also provides an important synergy opportunity for the Oligozyme technology owned by Innovir, a VIMRx majority-owned subsidiary.

In November 1996, VIMRx brought a controlling interest in Innovir Laboratories Inc., of New York, with the goal of combining the companies' technologies in the field of catalytic oligonucleotides.

The move brought together VIMRx's Rilon technology and Innovir's External Guide Sequence technology, both of which seek to control disease-triggering flaws in genes.

As CGC provides access to proprietary gene sequences implicated in disease processes, the Oligozyme technology can then be used to better understand the function of these genes and to potentially develop important new diagnostic and lead therapeutic compounds.

"We are very enthusiastic about the potential of the oligozyme technology to do what we call target validation, that is to say, identification of new genes that are the biologically important ones from a disease management point of view," Jackson said.

"At Columbia Genomics Institute, their business is discovering new genes that are genetically implicated as being important in a variety of diseases where there is substantial unmet medical need," he continued. "With Innovir's Oligozyme technology, we have what we believe is the next step in what is needed to take this new genomic information and rapidly and inexpensively determine what the really important genes are."

In addition to its activities in the field of genomics, Columbia has more than 250 active license collaborations with industry and currently receives royalties on such biotech products as tissue plasminogen activator, erythropoietin, colony stimulating factor, Factor VIII, Pulmozyme, Cerezyme and ReoPro.

"To have a comprehensive package of technology as this is from a university, and then to form a joint venture where both the company and the university are partners together developing this comprehensive package of technology, is something that we think is fairly special," Jackson said.

VIMRx's cash position as of Sept. 30, 1996, was approximately $50 million. VIMRx's stock (NASDAQ:VMRX) closed Tuesday at $3.156, up $0.063. *