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HEARD ON THE BEAT / HEALTH CARE

Xoma Is Looking for a Few Bad Outbreaks

February 12, 1997|Barbara Marsh

It's tough for companies testing experimental drugs to find patients to play guinea pig.

Those with treatments for rare, rapidly advancing diseases have twice the trouble because cases are so few and patients who have been stricken may die before they can be pinpointed.

For instance, Berkeley-based Xoma Corp. is looking for patients to test its drug for treating severe meningococcemia in children. The disease--a runaway immune reaction to a bacteria--recently killed two Orange County children. When the company heard about the deaths, it began contacting local hospitals and physicians for prospects.

Xoma aims to test its drug Neuprex in 130 sick patients over the next two years, then plans to seek regulatory approval to market it. So far, it's enrolled 29 in tests across the U.S., Canada and England, needs to recruit more, and must continually scan the country for possible outbreaks. "The more trial sites we have enrolled, the more quickly the trial can come to a conclusion," says Ellen Martin, the company's spokeswoman.

Currently, doctors use antibiotics to kill the deadly bacteria and patients can recover if the infection is caught in time. If not, the bacteria, upon invading the bloodstream, can touch off the immune disease, causing flu-like symptoms, such as a high fever, a purplish rash, loss of mental alertness and, in nearly a third of the cases, death within hours, the company said.

The company said that 25 out of 26 severely ill patients survived in preliminary tests of the drug.

Barbara Marsh covers health care for The Times. She can be reached at (714) 966-7762 and at barbara.marsh@latimes.com

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