BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - RioTech Pharmaceuticals raised £750,000 (US$1.4 million) in its first private round, enabling it to finish preclinical development of a novel interferon product for treating chronic hepatitis C.

The money, from private investors and business angels, will fund the London-based company for 18 months. "This should allow us to get our alpha-8 interferon to the point where we can find a partner," Mark Thursz, founder and chief scientific officer told BioWorld International. "The nature of the deal will determine whether we need to raise more money at that point."

RioTech was spun out of Imperial College London and Oxford University by a five-person team of scientific and clinical experts in hepatitis. In its seed funding round, the company raised £250,000 from the government-sponsored University Challenge Fund. Currently, RioTech has one product, interferon-alpha-8, which it claims is the most potent of the 14 known Type I interferons, and more than 1000-fold more potent than IFN-alpha-2, the established therapy for chronic hepatitis C. Thursz and his colleagues did not discover IFN-alpha-8, but profiled the compound to establish its properties and have filed use patents.

"All types of interferon have three principle properties - they are antiviral, immunomodulatory and anti-proliferative. You need all these elements to tackle chronic viral diseases, and it turns out that interferon-alpha-8 has the best properties," Thursz said. RioTech has developed a commercial system for manufacturing the compound.

The current standard of care for hepatitis C is a combination of pegylated interferon with ribavirin. However, that combination is ineffective in about 50 percent of patients, and as the treatment is prolonged and associated with severe side effects, compliance is poor.

RioTech has discovered an enzyme implicated in regulating the potency of the antiviral effect of interferon, also. The company has developed an assay to screen for inhibitors of the enzyme, but is yet to generate any leads.

"We envisage that any drug we develop would be co-administered [with interferon] to produce an enhanced host immune response against hepatitis C virus infected cells," Thursz said.

RT Pharma does not intend to develop any further products at this stage. "The idea is to focus on these two. For a small biotech that's probably quite sufficient," Thursz said. "If we are successful, we may go back and look at the other interferons."

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