Washington Editor

The National Institutes of Health agreed to pay Kalypsys Inc. up to $30 million over four years for access to the firm's technology, which is expected to help scientists efficiently and simultaneously screen a broad portfolio of biological assays.

Kalypsys' platform of highly automated lead-discovery solutions will be used by the NIH's newly created Chemical Genomics Center, a nationwide network being formed to produce innovative chemical tools to help understand the function of the genes that comprise the human genome.

Financially, Kalypsys could collect $30 million if the NIH chooses to exercise all of its options. Pratik Shah, the company's chief business officer, would not specify the proposed schedule of payments, nor would he comment on any funds already paid to the company. However, he described the deal as "substantial."

As part of the program, next year the government will fund up to 10 pilot centers across the U.S., where the academic research community will build a network for identifying a range of small molecules with promising properties for biological research, the NIH, of Bethesda, Md., said in a prepared statement. To support the network, the NIH intends to establish a repository to acquire, maintain and distribute the chemical compounds.

Data generated by the network will be deposited in a central database, called PubChem, which will be managed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine, and it will be freely available to the scientific community.

Kalypsys will provide online and off-line technologies that include workstations, hit-picking, essential consumables, compound libraries, compound acquisition and screening services, and an ultra-high-throughput screening system capable of screening in excess of 1 million compounds per day in a variety of biochemical and cellular assays, the company said.

Shah said Kalypsys is delighted to be part of the national initiative in which its technology will be deployed on such a significant scale. "We developed these technologies to do big things, and I think it feels incredibly special to be able to contribute to such an important project," he said.

Kalypsys, a San Diego-based privately held firm, was spun out of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., in 2001. The firm employs 80 to 85 people. Other companies, including CV Therapeutics Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., and Merck & Co. Inc., of Whitehouse Station, N.J., have worked with the Kalypsys technology in the past under collaborations. (See BioWorld Today, March 27, 2003.)

The NIH hopes the genomics center will build upon what already has been learned by the pharmaceutical industry. "What we are doing is simply giving academic and government researchers a chance to contribute in a much more vigorous way to the earliest stages of the drug development pipeline: the identification of useful biological targets," Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said in a prepared statement.

The genomics center, which will have a staff of about 50 scientists, plans to begin high-throughput screening by the end of the year. The goal is to explore the vast majority of the human genome for which no small-molecule chemical probes have been identified. Of the hundreds of thousands of proteins thought to be encoded by the 25,000 genes in the human genome, fewer than 500 currently have a chemical compound with which they interact, the NIH said.

With an eye toward expanding the frontiers of genomic exploration, the NIH Chemical Genomics Center plans to screen more than 100,000 small-molecule compounds in multiple high-throughput assays within its first year of operation.