BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - Cerenis Therapeutics SA completed an initial funding round in which it raised $30.5 million from an international syndicate of venture capital funds.

The group was led by Sofinnova Partners, of Paris, and co-led by HealthCap, of Stockholm, Sweden. It also included Alta Partners, of San Francisco; EDF Ventures, of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and NIF Ventures, of Tokyo.

Cerenis Therapeutics was established in March and is incorporated in both Toulouse, France, and Ann Arbor. Cerenis Therapeutics Holding SA was incorporated in France March 24 and Cerenis Therapeutics Inc. in the U.S. June 29.

The company was founded by a triumvirate led by CEO Jean-Louis Dasseux, a high-density lipoprotein specialist with more than 45 patents to his name. Dasseux is one of the world's leading experts in lipid metabolism and lipid-protein interaction and is the inventor of a high-capacity reverse lipid transport peptide (ETC-642), as well as a series of small-molecule compounds that raise HDL levels.

His work was at the heart of the research and development programs of Esperion Therapeutics Inc., also of Ann Arbor, where he was vice president of chemistry and technologies until the company's acquisition by Pfizer Inc., of New York, for $1.3 billion in 2004. Before joining Esperion, Dasseux was director of research at the French pharmaceutical company Fournier, where he established and managed its research center in Heidelberg, Germany.

The co-founders of Cerenis are William Brinkerhoff, chief operating officer, and Maritza Oxender, vice president, development and operations. Both are former executives of pharmaceutical companies, and Brinkerhoff was with Dasseux at Esperion for a time. The chairman of Cerenis is André Mueller, who has 20 years' experience in the management of biotech start-ups, including at Actelion Ltd. and Biogen Inc.

Cerenis Therapeutics is focusing on HDL-related drugs for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders. HDL is known as the good cholesterol, since it facilitates the removal of excess cholesterol from the body. Cerenis plans to develop both synthetic compounds and small-molecule drugs that enhance HDL levels and/or activity, concentrating in particular on the treatment of atherosclerosis.

Dasseux told BioWorld International the strategy of Cerenis is to exploit the experience and know-how of the many HDL specialists working in companies and research establishments around the world rather than to create a major in-house R&D capability. He explained that the company would conclude contracts with those organizations that might either entail payment for services or be based on a "symbiotic relationship" in which both parties gained scientifically. In either case, the contractual framework would ensure Cerenis would own all the relevant new intellectual property created.

Dasseux pointed out that the company owned all its existing IP, including the patents he originally filed in Germany, to which Cerenis has acquired the rights. He said Cerenis' IP included patents for synthetic HDL that covered not only the composition of matter but also methods of use and the manufacturing process.

Cerenis has embarked on several research programs, one of which is focused on bringing about increased production of HDL and others on regulating the function of HDL. HDL is "the main mediator of reverse cholesterol transport," Dasseux explained, adding that "there are lots of things to be done to get the best HDL complex." The company already has several leads and plans to test its first compounds in the clinic within three years.

Cerenis plans to in-license molecules and soon is due to announce the signing of a license agreement with a Japanese company covering a molecule that affects the creation and activity of HDL. Dasseux said Cerenis would be looking for compounds with reliable potential in humans. "Some good HDL projects have no value in humans," he said. "We can trust some animal models, but rodents are not very good."

He explained that Cerenis had sufficient funding to see it through to the Phase I trial stage, and that once it had established proof of concept it would evaluate its options. It could opt for an IPO in either Europe - if the market and the investment climate were more propitious by then - or on Nasdaq, in which case the company would need a U.S. base.

That's one reason why it established facilities in both Toulouse and Ann Arbor. Dasseux explained that the French operation would be in charge of scientific research and development, while the U.S. office would handle the business development side. He added that the company planned to have six to 10 people working in France and half a dozen in the U.S. within 12 to 18 months.

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