BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - A French spin-off from the British Medical Research Council that has developed a technology to ensure the effective bioavailability of therapeutic peptides is about to close its first funding round, which will net it at least €1.7 million.

Called Avidis, the company was created in September 2000 by four researchers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom - two British, one Irish and one French - and is based in the biotechnology business park of the Auvergne region in central France, near the city of Clermont-Ferrand.

Business Development Director Michel Wurm told BioWorld International that the French co-founder, who is an Auvergnat himself, persuaded his associates to locate in France because they would get better state support for their enterprise there than in the UK, and it would be easier to find suitably qualified research staff. His argument was reinforced by the fact that their project won a $1 million innovation prize from two regional business promotion agencies.

Altogether, Avidis has received public funding of $3 million from local, regional and national institutions in France, including a regional venture capital fund, Sofimac, of Clermont-Ferrand. It is among several venture capital funds, most of them French, participating in the current funding round and will remain the company's largest shareholder, Wurm said.

The current funding round is a stopgap measure for the company, which already is planning a more substantial $10 million Series B financing in the third quarter of 2003, by when it hopes to have established proof of principle for its technology.

Avidis, which describes itself as a protein engineering company, has developed a proprietary technology called Heptafold that is designed to overcome the so-called "peptide paradox." As Wurm explained, although peptides are more specific and can easily be discovered against any target using phage display, most of the thousands that emerge from the screening process die during development. Only about 15 have reached the market, in fact, so whereas $24 billion worth of therapeutic proteins were sold worldwide in 2001, sales of therapeutic peptides amounted to only $5 billion, he said.

The problem with peptides is that they are very small (less than 50 amino acids), making them unstable in vitro. They break down quickly in the blood and are excreted rapidly through the kidney, so in their natural state they are not suitable for pharmacological use. But Avidis said it has a found a way of transforming peptides into exploitable therapeutics.

Its Heptafold technology is a molecular process in which the gene coding for the peptide is fused with a small, stable protein that is naturally present in the blood. Starting from a monomer, the fusion process creates a heptamer using the protein as a scaffold, which protects it from the deficiencies of natural peptides and gives it the necessary stability for effective pharmacological activity. Moreover, the fused peptide is expressed in seven copies, so it binds better to its ligand. It can thus be administered in smaller quantities, with reduced side effects.

No proven drug candidate has yet been generated by this technology, but Wurm said Avidis was convinced that it was superior to any other peptide-enhancing technology and that proof of principle would be established within the next few months, due to several research collaborations it has entered with companies in the U.S., France and the UK for the production of therapeutic peptides.

A U.S. company is the one that is expected to validate Avidis' technology first, Wurm said. Although the agreement was signed only in June, Avidis already has delivered the fused peptide, and the company now is evaluating its therapeutic potential. The results should be known in February.

They will be the basis for Avidis' second funding round. Wurm said the financing nearing completion will enable the company to fund its activities until the end of next year, since it intends to "reduce its burn rate to around €1.2 million in 2003."

Avidis' business strategy is to become a major service provider to pharmaceutical companies interested in transforming peptides into drug candidates. It also intends to exploit the technology in nontherapeutic fields by licensing it out for applications in diagnostics and vaccines and for the production of monoclonal antibodies with an enhanced immune response. In a second phase, the company plans to use its technology for in-house drug discovery, but at this stage has no particular therapeutic field in mind, Wurm said.

Hepatold is protected by three patents; in addition, Avidis has four exclusive licenses from the MRC giving it rights to a gene overexpression technology called OverExpress. It has licensed this technology on to several companies - Roche, Aventis, Pfizer, Sanofi-Synthélabo and Genencor - and dozens of public laboratories for the production of membrane and/or toxic proteins.