West Coast Editor

For its work with drugs, chemicals and biofuels, Amyris Biotechnologies Inc. raised $20 million in its first round of venture funding, and appointed John Melo as the company's CEO.

Melo previously served as president of U.S. fuels operations for BP plc, of London, and aims to further Amyris' work in such areas as polymers, specialty chemicals and nutraceuticals, as well as biofuels.

But Amyris' co-founder and vice president of development, Neil Renninger, said the firm brings "new, disruptive production processes to a variety of industries" - and pharmaceuticals is the first industry targeted.

"Instead of doing synthesis through traditional chemistry, we use microbes," Renninger said. The company can "cobble together metabolic pathways from multiple organisms and reconstitute them in an organism we can manipulate," he said.

Amyris was last heard from in late 2004, when philanthropist Bill Gates granted $42.6 million to the firm, along with the Institute for One World Health, in an effort to develop artemisinin for malaria. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 14, 2004.)

Isolated in the 1970s in the leaves of the Artemisia annua plant, artemisinin already is used as a malaria treatment in China and Southeast Asia.

"It's being grown more and more places every day," Renninger said. Plantations are established in Africa and Tanzania, but "cost is still an issue," he said, as well as the potential for plant diseases and the time required for growing and harvesting.

The World Health Organization calls for artemisinin combination therapy in areas in which the malaria bug has developed resistance to chloroquine. Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis AG markets two such drugs: Coartem, a combination of the artemisinin derivative artemether and lumefantrine; and Riamet, another, more costly version of the same compound.

Coartem is sold through WHO, at a price of $2.40 per course of treatment. "In India, that's too expensive," Renninger noted.

Amyris' method for making artemisinin is "ready to be scaled to manufacturing scale," he said. "We have to prove [to regulators] that the compound coming out of the microbe is the same as the compound you extract from the plant. That's a lot easier to do than equivalency of proteins, for example."

One World Health will take over the scaling and regulatory phases, which will take "a couple of years," Renninger said. The target for launch is late 2009 or early 2010, Renninger said.

Sanofi Group, of Paris, and London-based GlaxoSmithKline plc also have malaria combo drugs in the works. Another Gates-funded effort, the Medicines for Malaria Venture, is working with India-based Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. on RBx 11160.

"Their program is a little different," Renninger said. "They're working on a synthetic peroxide." RBx 11160 would be used in combination with another, longer-acting drug, piperaquine phosphate, in accordance with WHO guidelines.

Khosla Ventures, of Menlo Park, Calif., led the Amyris financing, with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Texas Pacific Group Ventures, both also of Menlo Park, taking part. Samir Kaul, of Khosla, joined Amyris' board, along with John Doerr of KPCB and Geoff Duyk of TPGV.

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