As the new CEO of Scion Pharmaceuticals Inc., Barry Berkowitz plans to focus on forming strategic alliances and advancing products developed with the company's ion channel discovery platform.

"Scion is at an interesting stage, because its focus has been on the discovery phase and now it's moving to the development phase," he said.

Berkowitz, who previously served as corporate vice president at Albany Molecular Research Inc., of Albany, New York, said he was attracted to Scion because of its "excellent core technology," and prospective partnering opportunities.

Scion has raised more than $20 million in private financing. When it comes time for more, Scion has a "menu of choices," including "corporate interaction, strategic alliances or further financing," he said.

"I believe our assets are ready for strategic alliance discussions, and we're looking at discussing and consummating one or more by the end of the year," he told BioWorld Today. "Our ion channel platform allows us leverage, along with the ability of our technology to assess the functions of drugs with our high-throughput technology."

Berkowitz said Scion's rapid discovery and development progression, due to its high-throughput electrophysiology assays, added to his interest in the company.

"With most drugs, you start development by binding them to certain targets and then testing for the right drug," he said, adding "only then do you test for functionality."

Scion's high-throughput system allows the company to evaluate target function and drug activity during earlier stages of the discovery process.

For Medford, Mass.-based Scion, it's about ion channels, cell pathways that regulate the flow of ions in and out of the cell. Those pathways also have been identified as targets for pharmaceuticals. Scion has been completing preclinical development of a product to treat neuropathic pain, and the company is working on an overactive bladder product, also preclinical.

"We're pushing those drugs along," Berkowitz said, adding that "some types of pain, often associated with diabetes or certain viral infections, are very hard to treat." The most commonly used treatment has been opiates, which might not always work and can carry adverse side effects, he said.

Berkowitz said Scion's pain product is believed to have a similar effect as the recently approved Prialt, developed by Dublin, Ireland-based Elan Corp. plc. That drug, designed as a channel blocker, is the synthetic equivalent of a conopeptide found in the Conus magus marine snail. Prialt is administered through implanted or external microinfusion pumps that release the drug into fluid surrounding the spinal cord, but Scion is designing its drug to be given both orally and intravenously. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 30, 2004.)

"There's also a gap in pain treatment," Berkowitz said, referring to the imbroglio around COX-2 inhibitor products, such as Vioxx, recently pulled off the market by Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck & Co. Inc. in light of risks of heart attack and stroke in long-term users.

He did not say when the company planned to file an investigational new drug application for its neuropathic pain product, but said it is "rapidly approaching clinical stage."

Then there is the product for overactive bladder, an indication that brings "all sort of different, unpleasant sensations" with it, he said. Scion is "hoping to find a treatment that attacks the area of overactive bladder by dealing with those sensations. It's almost a system biology approach as opposed to treating a disease as if it's a single receptor."

Scion also plans to use its discovery platform in other therapeutic areas.

Scion acquired its channel-focused chemical library from Cambridge, UK-based CeNeS Pharmaceuticals Inc. in 2001, including areas of sodium and calcium ion channels, as well as glutamate and sigma receptors.

In November 2001, the company completed its first round of financing, raising $4 million, which it followed with a $17.5 million round in July 2002. (See BioWorld Today, July 19, 2002.)

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