Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Inc., which last year movedaggressively into cell and gene therapy by forming anetwork of companies under the name of Gencell, addedto the mix Thursday a firm that claims to have anautomated method of making cell production as easy asusing a video cassette recorder.

Aastrom Biosciences Inc., a privately held company inAnn Arbor, Mich., could receive more than $25 millionfrom Rorer's Gencell division for rights to use Aastrom'sautomated cell production system to grow lymphoidblood cells for treatment of diseases such as AIDS andcancer.

Neither Aastrom nor Rorer, of Collegeville, Pa., woulddisclose financial details of the collaboration.

However, Aastrom's president and CEO, DouglasArmstrong, said his company will receive up-frontpayments in the form of equity and research funding.Additional payments will be tied to achievement ofmilestones based on the utility of Aastrom's technology.

In describing the level of automation reached by Aastrom,Armstrong said the technology is designed to eliminatethe "art" of producing cells in a labor-intensive laboratorysetting and to simplify the process for use on-site inclinics and hospitals.

"We have the equivalent of a video cassette recorder thatyou use to play a movie," Armstrong said. "All you do isput in the cassette and the VCR controls all theprocesses."

With Aastrom's cell production system, he added, cellsare squirted into a cell cassette, which is placed in a cellproduction incubator. After 10 days, the targeted dosageof cells is grown and transferred directly into a blood bag.The whole process is conducted in a sterilizedenvironment. The system also can accommodate genetransfer to cells.

A major advantage, Armstrong said, is cost savings. Forexample, Aastrom is testing the device as a means ofproducing stem cells for bone marrow transplants incancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Typically a quartof bone marrow is needed for a transplant. Armstrongsaid Aastrom's system can produce that amount fromonly 10 milliliters. He estimated the overall savings atbetween $15,000 and $30,000 per transplant.

Rorer's Gencell division intends to use the Aastromsystem to expand or genetically engineer T cells and Bcells. Aastrom will manufacture the device for Rorer.

Armstrong said it will take two years to integrate theAastrom cell production system into Rorer's cell andgene therapies.

The system already is targeted for use with AppliedImmune Sciences Inc.'s CELLector device. Last weekRorer, which already owned 46 percent of AppliedImmune Sciences, proposed a buyout of the company for$84.4 million. The Santa Clara, Calif., firm will be theU.S. headquarters for Gencell, which is a network of 14companies and academic institutions formed inNovember 1994. Rorer is a subsidiary of France-basedRhone-Poulenc Group.

Applied Immune's CELLector device isolates the specificcells targeted for the treatment. Aastrom's cell productionsystem will be used to expand the number of the cells.Applied Immune's technology is being evaluated in twoPhase III studies for prevention of graft-vs.-host diseasein allogeneic bone marrow transplants and for kidneycancer.

Those two studies represent Gencell's most advancedtherapies. The division has a total of 10 clinical trialsunder way using cell therapies and both ex vivo and invivo gene therapies. Most of the studies target cancer.

Aastrom granted rights to its cell production system toRorer only for use with lymphoid cells. Aastrom, foundedin 1989 in partnership with the University of Michigan,retained rights for all other applications, such as stem celltherapy in association with chemotherapy and bonemarrow transplants, non-lymphoid gene therapies andtissue repair.

Rorer's stock (NYSE:RPR) closed Thursday at $48.50,unchanged. n

-- Charles Craig

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