Researchers may have at last grasped the means to developdiagnostics and therapeutics for Alzheimer's disease. At leastthat's one implication drawn from two studies reporting that akey protein involved in the neurodegenerative disease, calledbeta-peptide, is present in human cerebrospinal fluid, in bloodand in normal cultured cells.

Similar findings of the protein, were reported independentlyby different groups of researchers, lending more weight totheir significance. Athena Neurosciences Inc. of South SanFrancisco, Calif., and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospitalreported their finding in this week's edition of the journalNature. Case Western Reserve University researchers willreport in the Oct. 2 issue of Science.

Still, diagnostic tests that could work as an early- warningsystem for Alzheimer's or therapeutic products to block theharmful peptide that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer'spatients are considered years away.

To build a business while it develops its own advanced drugs,Athena started two years ago building a neurobiology productline by acquiring three compounds, all in clinical trials,developed by other companies.

The approach "really makes sense given the long time frame toget some revenue," according to Jim McCamant, publisher of theMedical Technology Stock Letter of Berkeley, Calif. Athena wasone of the first neurobiology companies to take this tack.

The most similar strategy, explained McCamant, was that ofNova Pharmaceutical of Baltimore, which recently approved amerger with Scios Inc. Mountain View, Calif. Nova in 1990acquired from developer SmithKline Beecham four genericpsychiatric drugs that produced 1991 net sales of $39 million.

"Two years ago, Athena was a company focused on Alzheimer'sand the blood-brain barrier," said John Groom, Athena'spresident. "We are only interested in diseases whichneurologists diagnose and treat H a $650 million annual U.S.market," he said.

The three compounds the company acquired are:

-- Tizanidine, Sandoz Pharma's compound for treating multiplesclerosis-associated spasticity,

-- Dezinamide, A.H. Robins' drug for epilepsy, and

-- Serotype B of botulinum toxin, manufactured by theMichigan Department of Public Health, for treating a variety ofdystonias.

"We are hoping that this will build a portfolio of products wecan introduce into the market between 1995 and 1997," saidGroom.

The company is also marketing drugs through a division calledthe Athena Home Pharmacy, a mail-order business thatdispenses to patients "any drug the neurologist prescribes Hincluding our own," said Groom. He said Athena intends to forma strong links between the company and the neurologist andthe patient. He predicted that Athena Home Pharmacy willgarner $30 million to $40 million in sales by 1995

"What's really important is that we have created a marketingand sales force for our own products as they come on-streamby 1995 and thereafter. The heart of the company was itsresearch and remains its research," said Groom.

-- Jennifer Van Brunt BioWorld Staff

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

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