A four-year-old privately held Maryland company tapping marinemicrobes for potential drug candidates differs from mostbiotechnology start-ups in one critical area _ the balance sheet'sbottom line.

Oceanix Biosciences Corp., of Hanover, has hovered aroundprofitability the last three years based on President and CEO DavidManyak's strategy of generating in-house contract research revenuesto support the company's drug development activities.

Manyak, a Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst during the formative years ofthe biotechnology industry, said companies from the early 1980s thatare thriving _ Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco, Amgen Inc.,of Thousand Oaks, Calif., Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., andGenzyme Corp., of Cambridge, Mass. _ first built a revenue streamto support their longer term projects.

In 1992, Oceanix was formed from a combination of Adheron Corp.,a University of Maryland research spin-off, and NovaScreen, areceptor-based drug candidate screening business purchased fromScios Nova Inc., of Mountain View, Calif.

Adheron's focus was development of industrial applications forbioactive chemicals from marine bacteria. That was expanded toinclude drug discovery with the addition of NovaScreen andtechnology transfer from the University of Maryland's Center ofMarine Biotechnology in Baltimore.

Oceanix's library of microscopic marine bugs now contains morethan 7,500 isolates from a variety of geographic and environmentallocations, including deep ocean thermal vents, U.S. coastal marshes,Australia's barrier reefs and Israel's Dead Sea.

In addition to the global collection efforts, Oceanix uses what it callscombinatorial genomics to create new bioactive compounds.

Combinatorial genomics, similar to combinatorial biology, takesgenes from hard-to-culture microbes and splices them into a bacterialhost, which then expresses the heretofore undiscovered biochemicals.

NovaScreen is the revenue-producing business supporting Oceanix'sown product development. Manyak said the contract researchoperation has 90 clients, including pharmaceutical firms. NovaScreenhas receptor-, enzyme- and cell-based assays along with highthroughput screening technology.

"What distinguishes us," Manyak said, "is the breadth of assays." Thecompany, for example, has 130 receptor assays representing mostmajor therapeutic categories.

NovaScreen's revenues for 1995, Manyak said, were $2.6 million.Since its founding, he added, Oceanix, with 35 employees, hasoperated with only a few million dollars in private financing.

Oceanix's own drug discovery efforts, Manyak said, focus on threeareas: drugs for central nervous system disorders, such as epilepsy;anti-infective agents; and cancer therapeutics.

After identifying lead compounds, the company intends to seekcorporate partners for clinical development of most of the drugcandidates.

However, Manyak said, Oceanix may decide to develop some anti-infective compounds itself, particularly for infections that havebecome resistant to current antibiotics. Marine microbes, heobserved, represent a new source of compounds to battle stubborninfections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

For central nervous system disorders, Oceanix has in-licensed twopatented compounds; one for evaluation in treating epilepsy and theother in preventing brain damage caused by stroke or trauma.

Oceanix is working with the National Cancer Institute on discoveryof anti-cancer drugs. The company is screening its marine microbeextracts for therapeutic activity in 60 cancer cell line assays.

In addition to its contract research activities and drug discovery,Oceanix's Marizyme subsidiary is developing biomaterials frommarine microbes for industrial uses, such as removal of pollutantsfrom waste water.

Industrial products, Manyak added, will give Oceanix an additionalsource of revenue to support long-term drug development.

Following his years as a biotechnology analyst for Merrill Lynch,Manyak was an industry consultant for various start-up companies,including GeneMedicine Inc., of The Woodlands, Texas. Oceanixrepresents his first experience at the helm of a company.

"I've had people say to me, `How can you run a company? You don'thave the background,'" Manyak said. "I feel like I've run 50companies [as an analyst and consultant]. I've seen lots of companiessucceed and lots of companies fail." n

-- Charles Craig

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