PITTSBORO,Biolex Inc., which uses an aquatic plant called Lemna to make proteins, signed its first major collaboration deal this week.

Biolex will be working with Swiss firm Debiopharm.

Jan Turek, president and chief executive of Biolex, tells Local Tech Wire the collaboration is a money deal of undisclosed value and is only the first of several it will announce in the next few weeks.

Debiopharm says the Biolex technology will give it cost-effective versions of several crucial proteins in its therapeutic pipeline, speeding development with what it calls “unprecedented levels of safety.”

Turek says Biolex avoids many problems that can occur when a plant makes therapeutic proteins for human use. The aquatic Lemna does its work in an entirely contained environment so that it won’t release pollen and it reproduces clonally, so has no seeds. Lemna makes proteins fast because the plant doubles its biomass every 36 hours, has a high protein yield, and scale-up to production levels is quick and predictable.

The speed of the process appeals to drug makers because it cuts development and/or manufacturing time substantially, both of which can mean many millions of dollars to drug development companies.

Turek says in late March Biolex met with the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration, which issued strict guidelines for transgenic plant crops Sept. 6. The FDA agreed that the way Biolex makes proteins with Lemna is not likely to run afoul of the guidelines, Turek says.

Biolex expects to close its latest round targeted at $20 million “very shortly,” says Turek. Investors, including Durham-based Intersouth Partners, have put $9.1 million in Biolex so far. “We have a lead investor, a number of other new investors, and our current investors have committed a substantial amount as well,” Turek says of the in-progress round.

Debiopharm has a successful record of developing and marketing new drugs in both Europe and the U.S. and will pay Biolex substantial collaboration fees if its initial trials with the plant prove successful and they move to production, says Turek.

Turek says that once the latest Biolex venture round closes, the company expects to increase its staff from 36 to over 70 people during the next two years.

Biolex: www,biolex.org