PARIS ¿ A French biotechnology start-up specialized in cellular genomics is seeking to discover a new class of therapeutic agents to combat inflammation in all its forms, using human endothelial cells.

Called Endocube, it is based in Toulouse and was set up by three scientific and medical researchers: Frangois Amalric, Jean-Philippe Girard and Pierre Bougnhres.

Amalric, the company¿s chief scientific officer, is a professor of molecular biology in Toulouse and director of the Institute of Pharmacology and Structural Biology (IPSB) run by the French National Institute for Scientific Research (CNRS). Girard, Endocube¿s head of science and research, also retains posts in the public sector as co-director of the IPSB¿s vascular biology laboratory and senior researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).

Endocube is housed in the premises of the IPSB and has privileged access to the Pharmacological Screening Center in Toulouse co-owned by the IPSB and the Pierre Fabre Research Institute (an offshoot of the French pharmaceutical company bioMirieux-Pierre Fabre). The company was set up a few weeks ago with the financial and managerial backing of Biobank, a biotechnology investment company created by former Genset CEO Pascal Brandys, which itself was incorporated only in May. (See related article, page 3.)

After putting in seed capital of EUR500,000 (US$458,000) to get the company off the ground, Biobank is nearing completion of a funding round that will provide Endocube with a further EUR1.5 million, at least EUR500,000 of which will come from Biobank itself, Brandys told BioWorld International. The additional funds will enable Endocube to establish a research center of its own at a biotechnology business park outside Toulouse, which is expected to be operational by spring 2002.

Endocube expects to have expanded its work force to around 30 by the end of 2002 from a handful today (not counting outside collaborators and consultants who already give it an effective work force of 20, the company said).

Endocube positions itself at the interface between genomics and cellular biology, and its core technology is the high-throughput, single-cell analysis of specific physiopathological mechanisms. The company has decided to focus on inflammation because it is a process at the root of many common diseases.

It regards the endothelium as an ¿ideal functional terrain for cellular genomics,¿ although its specific role in inflammatory and autoimmune mechanisms has been little explored to date. Endocube is concentrating its initial research on cuboidal endothelial cells, which are found in tissues subject to inflammation and chronic inflammatory diseases.

It begins by isolating human endothelial cells (ECs) through laser microdissection and then applies the techniques of comparative genomics (differential cloning of cDNA and the manufacture of DNA chips) to characterize specific markers of ECs linked to inflammation. It then conducts both in vitro and in vivo functional studies, including intravital microscopy that, Girard said, will be valuable for identifying and validating hits. Pointing out that different forms of inflammation require specific therapies, he said that Endocube¿s technology would enable it to generate differentiated drugs for these various needs.

Endocube¿s strategy is to discover and validate therapeutic compounds and then to license them out to the pharmaceutical industry. Amalric made it clear that its ¿long-term goal is not to become an integrated pharmaceutical company, but to go only as far as validating drug targets for licensing out to third parties.¿ It thus intends to enter into strategic partnerships at an early stage and conclude targeted licensing agreements with big pharma to derive immediate value from new pharmacological targets.

The company also plans to conduct collaborative screening projects for patented targets using original chemical libraries in order to build up a viable intellectual property portfolio of lead compounds for licensing out.

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