Ontogen Inc. has signed a more than $40 million deal withBoehringer Ingelheim GmbH to develop new technology that pushesmedicinal chemistry to a higher art form by greatly enhancing thespeed of compound synthesis, purification and analysis for drugdiscovery.

Barry Toyonaga, Ontogen's president and CEO, prefers not to use thebuzzwords, "combinatorial chemistry," in describing his Carlsbad,Calif., company's science.

"We do medicinal chemistry," he said, adding that to compete withpharmaceutical companies in that arena Ontogen devised a better andspeedier method of finding therapeutic chemical compounds.

What Ontogen discovered and wrote into patent applications,Toyonaga said, is a method of synthesizing as many as one millioncompounds per day in "milligram quantities that are individually pureand fully characterized."

Most combinatorial chemistry companies generate hundreds ofcompounds per day on an individually pure basis, Toyonagaobserved. But when they get up into the 100,000 and one millionrange, they have mixtures of unidentified compounds.

Huge numbers are nice, he added, "numbers with knowledge willsave the day."

Ontogen's current system, called OntoBLOCK, synthesizes 1,000compounds per day. Its new technology is designed to increase that10- to 100-fold.

Toyonaga expects quizzical looks when he describes Ontogen'stechnological advances for synthesizing, purifying and analyzingsuch gigantic quantities of drug candidates so quickly.

Boehringer Ingelheim, of Ingelheim, Germany, apparently wasconvinced.

The pharmaceutical company committed $41.6 million over fouryears to put the technology into practice. For its investment,Boehringer Ingelheim gets a co-exclusive license to the technologyand right of first negotiation on drug candidates that emanate from itsapplication during the collaboration. Diseases targeted by the twocompanies were not disclosed.

Ontogen will not license the technology to anyone else, but it stillwill use it in drug discovery partnerships with other pharmaceuticalcorporations and in its own drug development.

Two months ago, Ontogen signed a potential $22 million alliancewith Kanebo Ltd., of Osaka, Japan, to develop compounds fortreating skin diseases. Kanebo paid Ontogen $4.5 million up front.

Toyonaga said Ontogen sought a big pharma ally such as BoehringerIngelheim in developing the high-speed compound synthesis andpurification technology because of the sheer quantity of chemicals itwill generate.

"It was a matter of resources that a small company doesn't have," hesaid. "We can't assay the number of compounds that our technologywill produce."

The output, Toyonaga said, will easily satisfy the appetite of a largecorporation with multiple sites around the world that "hunger" fornew compounds to screen.

In reality, he added, "We may well give that organizationindigestion."

Ontogen was founded in 1992 and among its initial supporters wasAmgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif. A three-year collaboration inthe area of immunology ended in 1995.

Ontogen's own drug discovery efforts focus on compounds thatcombat multi-drug resistance in the treatment of cancer and inhibitenzymes linked to inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.