BioWorld International Correspondent

Following a change in strategy made public last month, Atugen AG secured €5 million in the first closing of its third round of financing. The company intends to use the new capital to accelerate its work on small interfering RNA therapeutics.

"The new money was very tightly bound with the new strategy," said Andre Lochter, Atugen's director of business development. "It's invested to press forward with the therapeutic program. We have some revenues from contract research, but clearly you need much more to advance a therapeutic pipeline."

Lochter also told BioWorld International that the company was working on a second closing in the third round. He declined to specify the amount of additional money the company expected to raise or the date by which it is likely to close the next deal.

Small interfering RNA (siRNA) inhibits the workings of messenger RNA, effectively silencing a targeted gene or set of genes. It thus can block the expression of proteins that are key to disease processes in cells. Atugen said the potency of siRNA in inhibiting target mRNA and, indirectly, protein expression, has been demonstrated to be 10- to 100-fold better than antisense oligonucleotides. Atugen said that the increased potency of siRNA molecules, along with progress in stabilizing siRNA molecules against degradation by nucleases, offer reasons to pursue drug discovery programs for both systemic and topical indications.

At the same time as the new financing, Atugen also said that it had been awarded a European patent covering its stabilized siRNA structures. The composition-of-matter patent gives the company greater freedom to operate in siRNA therapeutics, it said. Specifically, the patent covers siRNA structures that are chemically modified to increase half-life and improve the pharmacokinetic profile of potential siRNA drugs.

"This investment gives us the resources to leverage our know-how and patents to the next stage, where we can move more rapidly and find partners who are suited to take compounds into the clinic," Lochter said. "The nice thing is that we are open to many potential partnerships because the technology has to be developed on an indication-specific basis."

As the company moves through proof-of-concept studies, the liver is emerging as a key area of research.

"In-house, we are running more and more detailed proof-of-concept studies, but there is a lot to optimize," Lochter said. "We are currently focusing these studies on the liver, because there is very good uptake of our molecules there. The formulation we have is very good. We know which cells the molecules go into, and the liver works as a very good model system for us, so now we are looking at the pharmacology and pharmacokinetics. Cancer of the liver is one obvious indication that we could pursue."

The company plans to develop expertise in certain medical areas and find external partners for other types of disease. "Now we are primarily looking for co-development," Lochter said. "While we don't have a big deal yet, we would like to find something where we focus on the technology, and our partner focuses on the targets and possibly a few models."

The financing round was managed by WestLBPanmure. It was co-led by new investor Novartis Venture Fund, Switzerland, as well as Apax Partners and Atugen's previous investor MPM Capital. The investment brings Atugen's total raised to €31 million since the company's founding in 1998.