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HEARD ON THE BEAT / ORANGE COUNTY

Drug Could Help Prevent Blindness in AIDS Patients

April 13, 1998|BARBARA MARSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six years ago, scientist Kevin Anderson forged a new molecule that promised to slow the progress of an AIDS-related disease that causes blindness.

But he had little cause to celebrate back then. It's extremely rare for a molecule that shows potential in the lab to prove itself safe and effective in prolonged tests on patients.

"The probability that positive discovery results will eventually progress to a drug is like winning the California Lottery," said the scientist at Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc., the Carlsbad biotech company.

Last week, however, Anderson allowed himself to party. He joined hundreds of co-workers and their kin at Isis' companywide bash to fete its application seeking regulatory approval of Anderson's molecule as a new drug. In late-stage tests, Anderson's drug, fomivirsen, appeared to hinder the spread of retinal lesions, caused by cytomegalovirus, in the eyes of AIDS patients.

Dr. Brent Norman, a Newport Beach eye surgeon who treats AIDS patients with the condition, received word of the drug's progress with enthusiasm. "Any opportunity to improve our treatment of the disease is good news," said Norman, who noted that fomivirsen might help slow the disease in patients who have become resistant to other drugs.

"Eventually, cytomegalovirus will outsmart a drug," he added. "The longer patients are on these drugs, the more you see resistance."

Though nothing is a sure bet, analysts say chances are good that an AIDS-related drug that's come so far will pass muster with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If so, Isis will join the elite group of biotechs nationally to actually get a new drug to market.

Dr. Daniel L. Kisner, Isis' president, who oversaw the drug's development, said that test photographs of patients' retinas indicated the drug slowed the disease's progression both in those who had failed on other medications and those newly diagnosed with the condition.

Kisner, Anderson and nearly 50 other Isis employees have been working round-the-clock to prepare those results for regulatory submission. Kisner, who edited and rewrote about 20,000 pages of the 150,000-page submission, has taken only a couple of days off since Christmas.

Shortly before officiating at the party last week, Kisner allowed, "I hope I stay awake."

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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