National Editor

Privately held Cellular Genomics Inc. sealed a collaborative research deal to apply its chemical genetics technologies to four target kinases selected by Serono SA, in exchange for an up-front payment and milestones over two years.

Details were not disclosed, but Serono, of Geneva, noted the kinases are important in its small-molecule drug discovery programs for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

"It's our first major corporate partnership," said Louis Matis, president and CEO of Branford, Conn.-based CGI, adding that a "significant upside" to the deal is the possibility of more revenue through Serono's right to license intellectual property that arises from the joint effort.

CGI will apply to the Serono targets its Analogue Sensitive Kinase Allele technology, which replaces a normal kinase with a modified one, and will use its P-target technology for in-depth mapping of kinase signaling pathways of interest to Serono.

A modified kinase achieved through the ASKA platform can be inhibited with high selectivity and specificity by a specially designed inhibitor, CGI said, allowing researchers to understand the pharmacological consequences of inhibiting a chosen single kinase. That means experiments can test, in the early development stages, the likely therapeutic benefit of inhibiting the normal kinase target with a small-molecule drug.

The ability is important to discard unlikely candidates, but "we believe it will work most frequently in the opposite way, helping to validate targets and support drug development," Matis told BioWorld Today.

Protein kinases are considered to be the largest drugable target class, with about 2 percent of all genes encoding the enzymes. Kinases regulate cell growth, activation, and death pathways, and are implicated in diseases that include cancer and those in the autoimmune/inflammatory category.

"Probably the majority of our resources are devoted to leveraging our technology for our own drug discovery and development," even while entering deals, Matis said.

"The partnerships we're discussing are [those] such as the Serono deal where a pharmaceutical partner will access our technology," he said. "Downstream, we'll look to establish partnerships based on our own targets and drug candidates."

In August, CGI opened a 9,000-square-foot expansion of its own small-molecule drug discovery facility, with capabilities in medicinal and high-speed analogue chemistry, high-throughput screening, cheminformatics and structure-based drug design.

"Our internal drug discovery programs are in preclinical stages," Matis said. For a lead compound against its first in-house target, "we anticipate [filing an investigational new drug application] in the second half of 2004," he added.

Many genomics companies are hurting in the current biotechnology environment, Matis acknowledged, but "we don't actually consider ourselves a genomics company. We consider ourselves a genomics-based drug discovery and development company, and we've been a drug discovery company since our inception two years ago."