Two private biotech companies and a university research grouphave formed an alliance to develop antiviral and antifungaldrugs.

RiboGene Inc. of Hayward, Calif. announced Monday that it willfund a multiyear collaboration with partners Pharm-EcoLaboratories Inc. and the University of North Carolina at ChapelHill aimed at developing promising small molecule compoundsdiscovered and synthesized by UNC researcher and professorRichard Tidwell and his colleagues.

Those compounds are analogs of a currently used antifungaldrug. Tidwell has synthesized several hundred structuralanalogs of that drug and he has already determined inpreliminary animal studies that at least some of the analogsshow effectiveness in fighting Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia(PCP; a common infection in AIDS patients) and otherinfections, according to Charles Casamento, president and chiefexecutive officer of RiboGene. UNC holds the patents on theanalogs while Pharm-Eco currently holds the license to theUNC-developed compounds.

RiboGene will provide somewhere between $300,000 and $1million to fund the first year of the collaboration, explainedCasamento. The group at UNC will conduct the research, whileRiboGene will be responsible for the preclinical and clinicaldevelopment of resulting compounds. And Pharm-Eco, based inLexington, Mass., will use its medicinal chemistry capabilities todevelop derivitives and analogs of the compounds and performprocess scale-up and manufacturing. According to theagreement, RiboGene will get exclusive worldwide rights to anycompounds developed. RiboGene will also market resultingdrugs and provide royalty payments to both UNC and Pharm-Eco. "Given what Tidwell has shown in his lab, we could haveone of these compounds in the clinic in the next two years,"Casamento told BioWorld.

"This agreement plays on the strengths of all three companies,"he added. UNC has expertise in synthesizing and analyzingthese compounds (Tidwell is a professor of pathology andmedicinal chemistry and the director of UNC's division ofcellular biology and biological chemistry). Pharm-Eco has theability to use rational drug design to improve on existingcompounds, as well as to scale-up capabilities. And RiboGenebrings to the partnership its strength in biology and screeningtechnology to identify new drug leads. The assay screenscompounds for their ability to interfere selectively in thereplication of viral and fungal pathogens.

RiboGene's overall business focus is to develop drugs thatinterfere with translation, the cellular process that turns RNAinto proteins. But the company is not wedded to a singleapproach to developing drugs. Even though "some of the drugsthat we may develop (through the partnership with UNC andPharm-Eco) don't interfere with translation (like the PCPcompounds), as we make new analogs

we'll screen them to determine what effect they might have ontranslation," Casamento told BioWorld. "If we find activity, we'lltake them back to the chemists for improvement."

RiboGene raised $4.8 million in its latest venture financing,which was completed in July. It has about $4 million now, and"given the new collaboration with Pharm-Eco and UNC, we arein good shape cash-wise for the next 12-15 months,"Casamento told BioWorld.

-- Jennifer Van Brunt Senior Editor

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