2 Md. firms team up on gene advance

In a bid to commercialize a landmark in the history of science, two Maryland biotechnology firms plan to team up to develop drugs that will treat pediatric ear infections by exploiting the first-ever genetic sequencing of an entire living organism.

Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville and MedImmune Inc. of Gaithersburg announced that they will link MedImmune's expertise in developing vaccines and Human Genome Sciences' expertise in genetic sequencing to build drugs to attack nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae, a bug MedImmune investor relations director Mark Kaufmann said causes 10 percent of U.S. pediatric doctor visits, yet has been stubbornly resistant to traditional, biochemically produced medicines.


"Most times with middle-ear infections they try to reduce the pain rather than kill the infection," said Patrick Dillon, Human Genome's director of gene discovery and exploratory research.

The announcement was timed to coincide with today's publication in the journal Science of the research of scientists at Human Genome's sister company, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), of the results of their effort to sequence the bacteria known as "H flu."


The announcement in May by TIGR scientist J. Craig Venter that scientists had decoded an entire organism -- as opposed to a relative handful of genes of larger creatures -- created a scientific sensation. A leading biologist working for the National Institutes of Health called the May announcement "an incredible moment in history" that presages a revolution in genetic knowledge as scientists decode larger organisms and progress toward unraveling the entire human genome.

"You really have history in the making here," Mr. Kaufmann said. "This is the first living organism that has ever been sequenced in the whole."

The sequencing of the whole H flu bacteria multiplies the possible ways scientists can attack the bacteria, because they now know so much more about how it works and what proteins are part of it, MedImmune research chief James Young said.

"For years they have been trying to make a vaccine for H flu and they have only been able to identify about 10 proteins," Mr. Young said. The full sequence will give the researchers 75 or more proteins to work with, giving them far more ways to attack the bacteria. "We've short-circuited the drug development process by years and years."

But both companies said any products from the venture are years away from the market. They hope eventually to develop both a vaccine to prevent ear infections and another product to treat the H flu once a patient has contracted it.

The H flu project will be only the first on which the companies plan to work together as Human Genome Sciences and the research institute continue to develop more genetic information that HGS and MedImmune can turn into vaccines and antibody-based products. Human Genome has an $85 million, 10-year deal for exclusive rights to commercialize innovations researched at TIGR.

MedImmune, Human Genome Sciences, and the research institute were all created in the late 1980s by the same venture capital firm, Health Care Investment Corp. of Edison, N.J., and talks on the venture began after Mr. Young saw Human Genome Sciences executives make a presentation at a March conference of Health Care Investment-funded companies and was "blown away," he said, by the speed with which TIGR had learned to map genetic sequences.

But the joint venture, whose financial terms are still being worked out, is not going to be changed by the close relationships that link MedImmune and Human Genome, one executive said.


"This is an arm's-length agreement," Human Genome President Melvin D. Booth said. "It was a matter of matching up our companies' different capabilities."