By Charles Craig

SAN FRANCISCO -- Developmental biology * the study of how a single cell becomes a person * is the hottest new science for drug discovery and the technology that holds the promise of regenerating in adults damaged cells, such as those that form bones, the brain, kidneys and other organs.

Among the early practitioners of developmental biology is Ontogeny Inc., which so far has discovered three molecules critical to embryonic formation of bone, neurons and sperm.

"It is thought less than 100 molecules that belong to 10 to 15 different families" are involved in the formation of the critical organs and components of the body, said Doros Platika, Ontogeny's president and CEO.

With three members of what is called the hedgehog family of proteins already identified by his Cambridge, Mass., company, Platika is moving to expand Ontogeny's research through a collaboration with Genetics Institute Inc., of Cambridge.

Platika will announce the alliance today at Hambrecht & Quist's 15th Annual Healthcare Conference, in San Francisco. Genetics Institute also was scheduled to make a presentation at the four-day meeting, but canceled following last month's $1 billion takeover by majority shareholder American Home Products Corp., of Madison, N.J.

Ontogeny is the third biotechnology company to collaborate with Genetics Institute on its DiscoverEase program of providing other firms, including competitors, access to a library of 5,000 as yet uncharacterized secreted proteins, which carry or receive signals among cells. The proteins may be drugs themselves or could be used as the basis for therapeutic small molecule compounds.

Genetics Institute, which launched its program in September 1996, also has collaborations with Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., and Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco, for use of the proteins in drug discovery. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 25, 1996, p. 1.)

GI Plans 10 Alliances For 1997

Dennis Harp, spokesman for Genetics Institute, said the company is on track to negotiate a total of 10 alliances by the end of 1997.

Terms of the Ontogeny collaboration are the same as those negotiated with Chiron and Genentech.

Genetics Institute provides recombinant proteins and clones of their genes along with other information on tissue source and DNA sequences. Partners are charged a modest fee for the proteins and preparing the clones, which are ready for screening with bioassays to determine the function of the genes.

In return, Genetics Institute will assess a licensing fee if a partner identifies a protein to make into a drug and will retain rights to co-develop and co-market the products.

Ontogeny's participation, Platika said, shows Genetics Institute is willing to work with small companies as well as larger, more established firms.

The alliance, he observed, gives two-year-old Ontogeny access to thousands of molecules and enhances its chances of growing quickly into a competitive company in the area of developmental biology.

"The highway is littered with people who pioneered the field and then got run over" by bigger companies with more resources, Platika said. "Our challenge is to build fast."

He said if Ontogeny finds three or four molecules in the Genetics Institute library as important to tissue formation as his firm's three hedgehog proteins, "it would be an incredible hit."

Ontogeny has developed a battery of bioassays gathered under the name OntoScreen for use in determining how the developmental genes work and their importance in forming what tissues.

The screens, Platika said, not only reveal function, but also establish when in the development process the genes first become active.

The timing of the gene's activation is critical, he added. For example, Ontogeny researchers found a protein that is active shortly before birth in forming the lungs.

"We initially thought this was a key molecule for the lungs," Platika noted. But on further examination, it was determined the molecule was involved in blood vessel formation and was activated much earlier in embryonic development.

In addition to the collaboration with Genetics Institute, Platika said, Ontogeny is launching its own program aimed at partnering with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for use of OntoScreen in deciphering the function of the thousands of genes being discovered in the human genome sequencing efforts.

"The technology to sequence genes has far outstripped the technology to understand their function," he said. "OntoScreen represents what we feel is a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and to identify the most powerful molecules."

Developmental biology, Platika said, is such a hot science because the molecules involved in forming the various tissues of the body are among the most powerful and hold the most therapeutic promise.

However, he cautioned that while the potential for regeneration exists, the molecules under study are those that trigger cell formation. "Whether the body responds is another question," he noted.

Ontogeny's bioassays include screens for evaluating the activity of developmental stage molecules in adults. "Once we find a molecule, we go to our adult system to see if it works," he said.

Ontogeny has two lucrative drug development collaborations based on its hedgehog proteins with Biogen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., and Boehringer Mannheim GmbH, of Mannheim, Germany. Together the two alliances are worth up to $130 million to Ontogeny. The Boehringer Mannheim deal involves bone formation and the Biogen alliance is focused on neuronal development.

Ontogeny's presentation at the Hambrecht & Quist conference is the first for the company. The meeting, sponsored by the New York investment banking firm, is one of the oldest conferences for investors in the health care industry.

Hambrecht & Quist officials said 270 companies, many of them biotechnology firms, will make presentations to more than 3,000 institutional and venture capital investors. Sessions begin today and end Thursday. *