MedImmune Inc. will pay a New Jersey biotech company $15 million to collaborate with it on potential new treatments for autoimmune diseases, starting with lupus.
MedImmune said yesterday it will initially focus on two antibodies that its new partner, Medarex Inc., already has in laboratory development. MedIm- mune executives said they hope to begin testing on lupus patients in 18 months.
That puts MedImmune at least several years behind Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville and Genentech of South San Francisco, Calif. Those companies have been racing to develop the first drug to treat lupus in more than 40 years.
"You always like to be first," said Ronald L. Wilder, vice president of clinical development at Gaithersburg-based MedImmune. "But being first does not mean there is nothing available to others."
In a complicated disease like lupus, which affects patients in different ways, Wilder said, some drugs might prove better than others in different people, or combinations of drugs might work.
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a potentially fatal disease that develops when the body's immune system runs wild and attacks the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood or skin. About 1.5 million people in the United States suffer from it, relying on treatments that can have dangerous and painful side effects.
MedImmune's new approach is aimed at halting overproduction of a protein called interferon, which may set off the inflammation process. MedIm- mune executives said their competitors target B-cell production, which comes later in the inflammatory process.
Mark Karvosky, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co., noted that MedImmune executives have said the company was seeking to bolster its drug development pipeline while working on new versions of FluMist, its nasal flu vaccine, and Synagis, its treatment that prevents certain respiratory infections in babies. "I see this as a positive move," Karvosky said.
MedImmune shares closed yesterday down 44 cents, at $26.45. Medarex shares closed unchanged at $10.32.