Switzerland’s Roche has signed an agreement with Ambrx, giving it access to the US's company's technology to develop proteins and peptides that offer efficacy or safety advantages over existing products.

Roche and Ambrx said they will initially use the technology platform to generate a new form of ‘pegylated’ interferon alpha, a drug used for the treatment of hepatitis.

Pegylation is used to extend a therapeutic protein's half-life - the time required for half the quantity of a drug to be metabolised or eliminated by normal biological processes - by attaching polyethylene glycol or ‘peg' polymers to the drugs.

"If proven successful, Ambrx' technology could potentially be beneficial to multiple projects in our biologics pipeline," said Roche. The Swiss firm already markets a pegylated version of interferon alpha called Pegasys, which is one of the company’s fastest-growing products and achieved sales of 1.2 billion Swiss francs last year.

Under the terms of the agreement, Roche will fund research and development of the products, and will retain exclusive worldwide commercialisation rights. Ambrx will receive license fees, research funding and development milestone payments plus royalties on product sales. In addition, the Roche Venture Fund will make an equity investment in Ambrx.

Ambrx’ first in-house product candidate, a mono-pegylated human growth hormone, is currently in preclinical development with an Investigational New Drug (IND) filing to start trials in the USA anticipated in 2006.