Two companies focused on diseases related to aging are taking a new approach to their development efforts: They're merging.

Elixir Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Centagenetix Inc. plan to unite in an all-stock transaction described as a merger of equals, and at the same time the Cambridge, Mass.-based companies - located a mile away from each other - are receiving a significant amount of fresh funding. A round of financing in excess of $17 million would immediately follow the merger. Further financial terms were not disclosed for the additional closing, though it is scheduled for later this month.

The combined entity will keep Elixir's name, and will be led by current Elixir President and CEO Edward Cannon.

"These two companies were formed as independent companies concurrently about two years ago quite literally to do the same thing - to discover genes that regulate aging and diseases that accompany aging - but from different platforms," Cannon told BioWorld Today.

Elixir's technology platform is based on the biology and molecular genetics of aging in laboratory organisms. Its genomics-based drug discovery efforts are based on recently discovered longevity genes that, when altered, slow aging and extend life spans. Centagenetix has conducted population association studies in centenarians to identify patterns of genes and gene variants unique to individuals with extreme longevity and vitality.

"Even though the companies had the same mission, they were going about it quite differently and in a way that is entirely complementary," Cannon said. "By putting the two together, we now have a comprehensive platform that goes from very, very simple single-cell organisms like yeast all the way up to more complicated beasts like ourselves, and the shared understanding of genes and pathways that regulate aging in all of those organisms."

Carl Weissman, who ran Centagenetix for a year after its May 2001 founding as its chief operating officer and also is a venture partner at co-lead investor MPM Capital LP, agreed.

"If you were to look at either companies' website and look at their mission statements, they're almost identical," he told BioWorld Today. "Both companies are interested in developing products that address the diseases of aging, disease resistance and the aging process."

Elixir has 25 employees, while Centagenetix has 15.

MPM's Ansbert Gadicke, who serves on Centagenetix's board, will become chairman of the new company. In addition to Boston-based MPM, other leaders in the financing included ARCH Venture Partners, of Chicago, and Oxford Bioscience Partners, of Boston. Other current investors also have committed to the financing.

Weissman said no single venture firm would gain a majority of the combined company, though each investor will be brought forward on the basis of prior money invested. He said MPM previously had invested about $8 million in Centagenetix, while ARCH and Oxford each previously invested about $3 million in Elixir. On their own, Cannon said both companies had raised about $8.5 million to date.

He said the latest funding would be used to advance lead compounds against three targets, two discovered by Elixir and one discovered by Centagenetix. Such efforts are now shared by the combined entity.

"We both have targets, and we both need to discover drugs that interact with those targets," Cannon said. "We need to get those into animal models, and hopefully in the not-too-distant future, into the clinic."

He said the funding also would be applied to transferring another set of targets into drug discovery programs. The merger allows the combined entity to increase output on the discovery side, and he said the platforms would continue to generate targets for the pipeline as compounds against current targets begin to move forward.

"For Elixir, we have a rather long list of candidate genes that we would like additional validation around by being able to look in human populations for alleles of those genes that either are enriched or depleted in the function of how long you live," Cannon said. "From Centagenetix's perspective, they have genes that they have identified but they don't know functionally what the protein encoded does, or what physiological function or pathways it might participate in."

Weissman echoed a similar thought.

"The discoveries Centagenetix would make in association studies are genes that we know are important in that process, but for which we would not have any functional biology," Weissman said. "Elixir, on the other hand, has been looking at the functional biology in lower organisms. They don't have human validation. Our platform provides a way to get human validation for their genes, and their platform provides a way for us to get functional biology around our genes. The synergy is very strong."

Given Elixir's focus on genes that regulate length of life, the company's targets address a spectrum of conventional diseases such as cardiovascular, cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, Cannon said Elixir chooses disease indication by letting the compound in the animal disease models point to the best-suited indication for each target-compound combination.

"We're not focused on the disease up front; we're focused on it on the back end of the drug discovery process," he said. "And we think the same compound will be appropriate and efficacious in multiple, distinct disease indications."

And with the distinct nature of both companies' platforms, many of the employees will remain with the combined entity, including Centagenetix's Bard Geesaman, who will be named Elixir's vice president of human genetics.

Doros Platika, Centagenetix's chairman, president and CEO, will depart following the merger's completion.