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Irish pharmaceuticals group Elan Corp PLC said on Thursday it was joining forces with U.S. group Biogen Inc to develop a treatment for multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease.

The Irish group said it would work with biotech company Biogen to develop, manufacture and commercialise Elan's Antegren, currently in intermediate Phase II clinical trials.

The agreement is the latest alliance involving fast-growing Elan, a relatively small company in an industry dominated by global giants. Elan has teamed up with U.S. companies American Home Products and Pharmacia in two initiatives aimed at developing a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

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Biogen chief executive Jim Mullen said Antegren had "blockbuster potential" and would complement Biogen's existing Avonex multiple sclerosis treatment, enabling the company to offer more solutions to patients.

Mr. Mullen said he believed the worldwide market for multiple sclerosis drugs would approach $3-billion (U.S.) by 2005. Its current estimated value is around $1.8-billion.

Multiple sclerosis is a debilitating disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and causes pain, tremors and paralysis.

Elan said the companies will share the Antegren venture costs equally. Analysts said revenues would also be split 50-50 over the lifetime of the product and that the companies planned to co-promote it internationally.

Elan shares, which have more than doubled in value this year, hit a fresh high in New York in morning trading and shares in Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen shares firmed on the Nasdaq.

Elan shares got a further boost after Chief Executive Donal Geaney told Reuters the company was on schedule to double group revenues to $2-billion in 2003.

Mr. Geaney said the alliance would give his company access to expertise and infrastructure that should not only reduce costs but bring the product to market more rapidly and efficiently.

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"Biogen is an ideal partner for us with this particular product because they are a significant player in the whole M/S field," he told Reuters in an interview.

"We would hope to get to market much quicker, that's the point of the whole thing," he added.

Mr. Geaney said the aim was to bring the product to market "somewhere in the 2004-2006 period" but noted there were a lot of research and regulatory hurdles to be crossed.

"I think our odds of doing that are much higher if we can bring a create deal of disease-specific knowledge to bear on the whole development process," he added.

The drug's potential market could be larger if Antegren is found to be effective in treating Crohn's, a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract.

Antegren is a humanised monoclonal antibody and the first in a new class of therapeutic treatments designed to block cell adhesion to blood vessel walls and the subsequent migration of white blood cells into tissue.

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That means Antegren may be useful in treating inflammatory and non-inflammatory diseases, Elan said.

Elan, listed in Dublin, London and New York, said the drug demonstrated promising results in Phase II studies on multiple sclerosis. Separate trials with patients suffering from Crohn's disease were encouraging, the company said.

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