Thios Pharmaceuticals Inc. is moving into new territory for biotechnology firms by focusing on the role of sulfation in cell adhesion and cell migration for drug discovery.

The company said that sulfation could play a role in inflammation, cancer and infectious disease.

“We believe we’re the first company to focus on our area of interest,” said Thios President Bruce Hironaka, who is now the company’s top executive, although it eventually plans to hire a CEO.

Oakland, Calif.-based Thios late in April said it completed a Series A financing round totaling $15 million, which will allow it to add employees and build the infrastructure needed for research, Hironaka said.

Thios now has six employees, a number that is expected to double in the next two months and grow to about 25 within 12 months, he said.

“We will be hiring primarily in the research area,” Hironaka said.

Hironaka was formerly vice president, corporate development, at Cell Genesys Inc., of Foster City, Calif. He also served as a vice president at Aviron Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., where he was responsible for managing non-research and development functions.

“My job is to move this company forward along as many pathways as rapidly and appropriately as possible,” Hironaka said.

Privately held Thios was founded on the research of Steven Rosen, a professor of immunology and cardiovascular research at the University of California at San Francisco; Carolyn Bertozzi, professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley; Ted Yednock; and Stefan Hemmerich, head of biology at Thios. They have studied the role of sulfation of proteins and sugars and how that process causes disease.

“The technology is based on sulfation pathways, an emerging area of biology that is gaining appreciation as a potential new therapeutic class,” Hironaka said. “Sulfation was recently discovered to be a major regulatory modifier of glycoproteins that are on cell surfaces and in the extracellular matrix.

“Since it’s a regulator of protein function, that can cause abnormal interactions among cells and growth factors,” he said.

Hironaka said he expects Thios to have preclinical candidates within two years.

Venture capital firms thought the company might be onto something because Thios was able to raise the funds necessary to carry it through the next two years.

“As a company with an exciting technology platform, we were able to attract significant venture capital interest,” Hironaka said. “In fact, after the close of this round, we still had venture capital firms trying to get into the round.”

The financing was led by HealthCare Ventures, of Princeton, N.J., and Boston. Investors included Skyline Ventures of Palo Alto, Calif., and private investors.

Christopher Mirabelli, a general partner of HealthCare Ventures, will become chairman of Thios. Yasunori Kaneko, a managing director of Skyline Ventures; scientific co-founder Rosen; and Karl Johannsmeier, a private investor, also will serve on the board.

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