BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - Ariana Pharmaceuticals, a start-up founded earlier this year to exploit artificial intelligence computer technology for drug discovery purposes, expects to close an initial funding round in the first quarter of 2004.

The Paris-based company's CEO, Mohammad Afshar, told BioWorld International that Ariana has lined up four venture capital funds, two in France and two in other European countries.

"We're nearing the end of the road," he said, adding that Ariana might get more than the €5 million it was hoping to raise.

The company has just renewed its license agreement with France's National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) for technology developed by the center's computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory in Montpellier. Ariana has an exclusive license for life science applications of the technology, which also is used in the nuclear, banking and management consulting industries for data analysis and outcome prediction.

Afshar explained that the collaboration would be renewed annually and that the intellectual property generated would be shared between the CNRS and Ariana, although the latter is assured of retaining its exclusive license for life science applications.

The company's technology incorporates computational algorithms that are applicable to the major classes of proteins, and Ariana is using it to identify molecules that can be modified by medicinal chemistry and that meet good ADMET (Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism Excretion, Toxicity) criteria. Starting with validated targets and structural data, the company uses a combination of computational, crystallographic and biochemical methods to identify quality lead compounds.

Ariana says combining selective, high-throughput virtual screening methods with in silico ADMET significantly improves the likelihood of identifying small-molecule drug hits against validated protein targets.

The virtual screening platform Ariana is developing can screen a library of more than 2 million existing drug-like molecules against the 3-dimensional structure of a protein target or entire families of related proteins. Virtual hits - typically between one and 2,000 - are selected, purchased (usually within six weeks) and experimentally assayed for identification. The hits are then fully characterized using standard methodologies and Ariana's technologies.

Ariana renewed its collaboration with the CNRS because "outstanding results were coming out of it," Afshar said. He explained that Ariana had a mixed business model - it intends to use its drug discovery platform to "capture the value of molecules" before licensing them out for development, and will offer licenses to biopharmaceutical companies for molecules in late lead optimization or drug candidates that are ready for development. Its in-house drug discovery programs are focused on oncology and diabetes/obesity.

Also, Afshar said, Ariana will enter technology-based partnerships with companies that want access not just to the technology itself but to the "complete drug discovery platform incorporating that technology." Among other things, Ariana will use its technology to screen third-party targets.

Afshar, who is of Iranian extraction but holds French nationality, had a career in biotechnology in the UK before moving to Paris, where he founded Ariana. The move to Paris was for several reasons, but the fact that Ariana's basic technology was licensed from a French research establishment is not one of them.

Firstly, Afshar pointed out that there are few large biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in France but a large pool of highly trained people, including expatriates doing post-docs or working abroad who would like an opportunity to return to their homeland. Secondly, he said the French state offers generous incentives to entrepreneurs and appreciates the funding provided by the National Research Promotion Agency, which not only advances long-term, interest-free loans - repayable only if and when the company becomes profitable - but also is prepared to make equity investments of €1 million or more.

Thirdly, Afshar said salaries are lower in France than in the UK. Three of the 12 staff Ariana has recruited came from Cambridge, UK. Moreover, Afshar is looking forward to 2004, when the new corporate status for young innovative companies comes into effect, bringing exemptions from France's high social security charges and other tax breaks.