Ophidian Pharmaceuticals Inc. was named after the serpentthat twines the staff of Aesculapius. According to mythology,an ailing citizen of ancient Greece could fall asleep at the shrineto this god, who would send the serpent to lick the lesions, andthe patient would awake cured.

It is perhaps fitting that the Madison, Wisc., company's firstannouncement on Tuesday of a major development agreementinvolves serpents. Ophidian will help the only producer ofsnake anti-venom in the U.S. develop improved versions of theantidote.

For more than 35 years, Wyeth-Ayerst laboratories, a divisionof international pharmaceutical conglomerate American HomeProducts Corp. (NYSE:AHP) has been the sole supplier of life-saving antidotes to treat serious bites by poisonous snakes inthe U.S.

Traditionally, snakebite anti-serum has been collected fromhorses, Ophidian co-founder Margaret van Boldrik toldBioWorld. But up to 75 percent of patients develop fever, achesand rashes from impurities, since the serum generally onlyundergoes one or two batch-purification steps to weed outextraneous proteins, but retain sufficiently active antibodies tothe toxin.

Besides serum sickness, a few patients can develop asometimes-fatal allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock.

Ophidian is developing its toxin antibodies in egg yolks insteadof horse serum. The yolks undergo a final affinity purificationstep to select antibodies that specifically bind the snake venom,thus allowing a smaller quantity of protein to be injectedduring treatment. The final product is an estimated 20 times aspure as the equivalent horse-antibody product made byWyeth.

Under terms of the agreement, Ophidian receives an initialpayment in addition to technical support, milestone and royaltypayments. Wyeth-Ayerst will fund commercial development inexchange for exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights inNorth America.

Privately held Ophidian went into operation in 1990 as one ofthe only biopharmaceutical companies in Wisconsin, usingproprietary technology to produce and purify toxin antibodiesfrom polyclonal sources, including horse serum.

The company now has about 55 shareholders following its thirdround of private financing, van Boldrik said. The company hasno venture capital backing, but did receive two small businessinnovation research (SBIR) grants under the Department ofDefense during the Gulf War to produce antibodies to lethalfood toxins. Under a third recommended SBIR grant, thecompany plans to develop anti-venom to Africanized "killer"bees.

Laying hens appear to be an economical source because sixhens produce as much toxin antibody annually as one horse,van Boldrik said. The company is counting on avoiding allergy-invoking substances -- primarily in egg whites -- that plaguesome people by limiting the antibody source to yolks.

Income from the anti-toxin production should allow thecompany to finance its long-term projects targeting infectiousdisease, van Boldrik said. Ophidian has a patent pending for apotential preventive agent for sepsis, the sometimes fatalreaction to the presence of bacterial toxins in the bloodstream.The compound has characteristics of both antibodies andantibiotics, van Boldrik said, and is being developed while thecompany explores drug design technology to synthesize severalso-called "immunobiotics." Another target of this productdevelopment is creation of anti-microbials to treatopportunistic infections in AIDS.

-- Nancy Garcia Associate Editor

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

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