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MedImmune Inks Exclusive License Agreement with La Jolla Institute for Asthma Discovery

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The non-profit La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology said last week that it has licensed to MedImmune the intellectual property rights to a discovery that could serve as the basis for a new biologic treatment for asthma.

If MedImmune can develop and market a drug based on the discovery, it could be a financial boost to the La Jolla Institute, which established a dedicated tech-transfer department in 2007 as part of an institute-wide effort to diversify its revenue sources before funding from sole corporate sponsor, Kirin Pharma USA, dries up in 2010.

Under the terms of the agreement, MedImmune, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca, has exclusively licensed rights to a discovery made by Michael Croft, a researcher in the department of allergy and asthma at LIAI.

Specifically, Croft discovered the role a protein called OX40 ligand plays in asthma. Croft and colleagues have demonstrated in animal models that antibodies can block the interaction of the ligand with OX40, its receptor, thereby substantially suppressing the lung inflammation and accompanying symptoms associated with an asthma attack.

OX40 ligand is a member of the tumor necrosis factor superfamily of molecules, which are signaling proteins used by inflammation-causing cells to communicate with the immune system.

According to LIAI, blocking the interactions between TNF and its receptors serves as the basis of approved treatments for several diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, and thus disrupting interactions of other TNF family members may prove useful as treatments for other inflammatory diseases, such as asthma.

MedImmune, headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., focuses on developing human monoclonal antibodies for preventing and treating respiratory and inflammatory diseases, and currently has multiple therapeutic programs underway targeting asthma. LIAI said the company will use its expertise in this area to develop a potential drug candidate targeting OX40 ligand.

"The licensing of this intellectual property by MedImmune further validates the importance of Croft's discovery in the field of asthma research," Mitchell Kronenberg, president and scientific director of LIAI, said in a statement. "We are thrilled that MedImmune has recognized its potential and will be leveraging the IP for its internal product candidates."

According to the US Centers for Disease ControI, in 2005 more than 30 million Americans – about 11.2 percent of the population – reported having a history of asthma, and more than 20 million Americans said they currently have the disease. Industry estimates of the worldwide market for treating asthma range from $15 billion to $35 billion.

If MedImmune can develop a drug based on the LIAI discovery that is able to penetrate that market, LIAI is likely to receive royalties on sales, although it is unclear what those royalties would be. Specific terms of the licensing deal were not disclosed. Meantime, tech-transfer officials from LIAI declined an interview with BTW; and MedImmune representatives familiar with the deal were unable to provide comment prior to the publication of this article.

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However, any revenue derived from an industry source – whether upfront or in the form of milestones or royalties – would likely be welcome news for LIAI, whose sole industry-derived money is unrestricted research funding provided by Kirin Pharma USA, the US division of Kirin Pharma, itself a subsidiary of Japanese brewing giant Kirin.

Kirin Pharma USA, which changed its name from Gemini Sciences in July 2007, occupies space along with LIAI in the University of California, San Diego, Science Research Park in La Jolla. Kirin established the division in 1988 to act as its sole agent in the US, facilitating the company's pharmaceutical research and business development efforts in North America.

Since 1989, Kirin Pharma USA has been a major corporate sponsor of LIAI, and has collaborated closely with the institute on a number of projects. According to LIAI annual reports, after research grants from the National Institutes of Health, research funding from Kirin has been the institute's second largest source of revenue.

The exact amount of support that Kirin provides is unclear. However, in 2007, the last full year for which financial data are available, LIAI took in approximately $23 million in federal research funding, $7 million in "private grants and contracts," and around $500,000 in licensing revenues, according to its annual report.

Kirin is only committed to fund LIAI through 2010, however, and the institute has made a recent effort to bolster its non-NIH revenues.

"LIAI's federal funding, total revenues, and net assets have increased steadily during the past five years," the company wrote in its 2007 annual report. "However, we remain cognizant of a decline in NIH funding levels that has and will continue to affect biomedical research nationwide.

"During 2007, the institute made strides toward diversifying and enhancing revenues from philanthropy and technology transfer," the report continued. "The addition of new departments for external relations and intellectual property has provided focus and experienced leadership in those areas."

Along with the NIH, the American Asthma Foundation provided support for Croft's research on OX40.

"As a nonprofit biomedical research institute, we are dedicated to finding the molecular causes of diseases, with the hope that our discoveries will one day be translated into new and better therapies," LIAI's Kronenberg said in last week's statement. "This agreement with MedImmune is a significant advancement toward that goal."

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