Washington Editor

In its 18 months as a company, Neurion Pharmaceuticals Inc. already has signed collaborations with Eli Lilly and Co. and Pfizer Inc.

Officials at Pasadena, Calif.-based Neurion attribute their ability to attract enviable partners to the reputations of their scientists - namely, Henry Lester, a professor of biology at California Institute of Technology, and his colleague, Dennis Dougherty, a professor of chemistry.

"Henry and Dennis have been collaborating for more than a dozen years on new methodologies to study the structure and function of ion channels and other membrane proteins," William L. Robbins, Neurion's president, chairman and CEO, told BioWorld Today. "Their work is well respected and highly regarded, not only in the academic community but also in the pharmaceutical industry, which is one reason why we were able to get early and positive recognition from the pharmaceutical companies who we approached regarding the possibility of forming strategic collaborations."

The company, which employs 10 people, considers Los Angeles-based Convergent Ventures, a life science venture capital firm, its third partner.

Neurion's technology, called the Precision Neurochemistry Platform, or NP2, helps scientists discover the structural and functional information about proteins in the brain that are thought to hold a key to treatment of neurological diseases.

Most of Neurion's disease targets have included Alzheimer's disease and associated dementias, Parkinson's disease, Tourette's syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit disorder, smoking cessation and chronic pain. The company's internal drug program currently focuses on anxiety, but Robbins said it likely will be expanded at a later time.

"We think the CNS in general is a field that has been underserved with new drugs that are both effective and safe," Robbins said. "The pharmaceutical industry in general views it as sort of the last frontier of drug development and that's why we are focused in this area."

For Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly, Robbins said Neurion will employ its own technology to conduct discovery work in conjunction with and on Lilly's behalf. "We are focused on a particular set of targets that are widely known to be associated with certain central nervous system diseases," he said.

Robbins would not discuss specific targets to the deal, nor would he elaborate on the financial arrangements between the companies other than to point to a prepared release, which said Neurion will receive cash payments and that Lilly retains the option to negotiate development and marketing rights to any compounds identified.

Meanwhile, the Pfizer research agreement, signed in January, is aimed at developing experimentally based computational models of drug-binding interactions with the HERG potassium ion channel. The partners intend to use the models to help in the development of drugs designed to reduce the risk of drug-induced cardiac toxicity. In that deal, Neurion received an undisclosed amount of up-front cash and could receive milestone payments.

Since its inception, Neurion has brought in about $2 million, partly through an investment from Convergent Ventures and partly through money paid by Lilly and New York-based Pfizer, Robbins said.