BioWorld International Correspondent

MUNICH, Germany - NascaCell GmbH, a Munich-area start-up, is winning plaudits for its technology that analyzes real-time interactions between two proteins or between a protein and a small molecule.

The privately held firm, founded in May 2000 and based in Tutzing, already has found a possible HIV inhibitor and performed an analysis that has improved understanding of the interactions between the blood-clotting factor thrombin and the proteins it works with, it said. Those results, part of a study conducted at the University of Bonn's Kekulé Institute for Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, were published in the most recent issue of Nature Biotechnology.

"The advantage of our method is that it can dramatically speed up the process," NascaCell's CEO Andreas Jenne told BioWorld International. "With this technology, beginning with a putative target and a gene sequence of the protein, we can go to a specific substance with correct properties ready for preclinical testing in approximately 11 months. Conventional methods might take one and a half to two years."

The screening approach in the university study used aptamers, small nucleic acid binders, combined with ribozymes, which are naturally occurring RNA sequences with catalytic properties. The aptamers, Jenne said, "have the same properties as nucleic acids. They are very specific and tightly binding. They can also be easily delivered into cells, which is not the case with antibodies." Furthermore, he said, the aptamers "act on proteins and not genes," which makes finding therapeutic compounds simpler.

Starting with a putative protein associated with a disease and the gene sequence for expressing that protein, NascaCell's process also evaluates potential targets in parallel. Jenne said the company's approach evaluated at least eight potential targets in a given process. At present, the firm is concentrating on compounds in the areas of anti-infectives and immunosuppression treatments. Negotiations are under way with potential partners in oncology, a move that Jenne said highlights the applicability of NascaCell's method.

NascaCell was spun off from the Munich Gene Center, and its financing reflects the public-private partnerships key to Germany's biotechnology industry. The company is still operating on the €6.2 million round of funding closed shortly after its founding. Investors include TransConnect, BioM and Polytechnus Venture Partners. The firm also received a grant from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and NascaCell's chairman is Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, former head of the German Research Community (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). Jenne said NascaCell is raising a second round of investment, which he expects to be around €8 million.

Acknowledging the difficult venture capital environment, Jenne said NascaCell's strengths were in the breadth of possible applications for its platform and its proven ability to "spin out small molecules with therapeutic effects." He expects the company to move compounds into preclinical testing with its own resources, and, starting in 2004, to begin clinical testing with larger partners.

The company has partnerships with Aventis for target validation, with Qiagen for screening and with Procorde, of Martinsried, Germany, to deliver systems for target validation and screening. NascaCell is "seeking partners that are doing gene sequencing and proteomics," Jenne said. The company also is establishing its own libraries of natural and artificial substances to increase the amount of target validation that it can do in house.

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