SYDNEY, Australia ¿ Autogen Ltd. said it patented 30 genes identified with diabetes and obesity and is systematically investigating them for possible treatment leads for those diseases.

The Melbourne-based company said the research, done in conjunction with its commercial partner, Merck Lipha, a subsidiary of Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany, has so far identified two promising leads, one connected to a gene called Beacon and the other to a gene called Tanis by company researchers.

Further research by Autogen, its officials said, has shown that the protein coded by the Beacon gene has been shown to significantly regulate body weight gain and food intake. The Tanis gene relates to a novel receptor involved in the body¿s response to fasting and regulation of glucose and fat metabolism. Control of that new receptor appears to be abnormal in diabetes.

Autogen Chief Scientific Officer Greg Collier said lead compounds connected with those genes now are being developed and would be handed over to Merck Lipha for further trials.

Autogen and Merck Lipha have developed what amounts to a production line for identifying genes associated with the two diseases and then producing leads that interfere with or promote the metabolic pathway associated with the gene.

Collier said that Autogen developed a substantial population of Israeli sand rats. Those rats were lean and in good condition when out in the desert, but if they are put in cages some ¿ but, crucially, not all ¿ of the rats will become fat or develop diabetes. Comparing the genomes of rats that developed those conditions with those that do not gives clues about the genes involved in the disease and the proteins they are associated with, particularly as the diseases in the Israeli sand rats were similar to the diseases in humans.

In addition, the company had access to genetic population databases and tissue samples for isolated populations scattered through the South Pacific (the area contains a number of island nations with populations that can trace their descent through many generations on the same island).

Collier said any clue about genetic links concerning the disease the company researchers picked up in one area, such as in the population studies, was checked against research into the Israeli sand rat. Clues found in studies of the sand rat population were checked against the human population studies.

The company also would take samples and microarray techniques to ¿make every gene turn on and off,¿ as well as look at the proteins expressed and the expression pathway, to arrive at a possible treatment mechanism.

The research is then turned over to Merck Lipha, which uses giant bioscreens to identify promising drug candidates. Merck will hand back the candidate molecules and Autogen would select the most promising of those, he said.

One problem for the company is that its managing director is mining entrepreneur Joseph Gutnick, who has received bad press in Australia recently. Gutnick is associated with a number of mining companies, including a major company that recently went into insolvency administration.