PARIS ¿ A recent French start-up is seeking to discover molecules that either induce or prevent cell death, and to evaluate their therapeutic potential.

Theraptosis is one of the latest firms to have been set up with the support of BioTop, the biotechnology business incubator of the Institut Pasteur in Paris. It was founded in March by two researchers from the institute, who remain its principal shareholders.

One of them, CEO Lina Edelman, told BioWorld International that they now are negotiating with other potential investors to raise seed capital of about FFr1.5 million (US$215,000). That would allow the company to double its work force from four to eight within two or three months and enable it to fund research and development activities for about 15 months, she said.

The therapeutic strategy is based on technology licensed from the Institut Pasteur, where Edelman still retains a post, and two public research establishments, CNRS (the National Center for Scientific Research) and INSERM (the National Institute for Health and Medical Research). The technology is geared to the treatment of cancers and neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.

Starting from the known fact that apoptosis is a beneficial act of self-destruction when it results in the elimination of abnormal, mutated or dangerous cells, but can actually cause illness if it occurs to an excessive or insufficient extent, Theraptosis is focusing its research on the identification of the basic trigger mechanism for cell suicide. Recent research indicates that the decision regarding the life or death of the cell is taken within a cell organelle, or mitochondrion, otherwise known as the cell¿s ¿energy factory.¿

This organelle stores proteins in its membrane that, when found in the cell cytoplasm or nucleus, trigger the death of the cell. The partial or total permeability of the mitochondrion causes the release of lethal proteins, so Theraptosis is working on the hypothesis that the life or death of a cell could thus be controlled by molecules acting on the permeability of the mitochondrial membranes. Certain molecules (cytotoxic) are capable of triggering cell suicide and others (cytoprotective) of preventing it.

When combined with targeted vectors, Theraptosis said the cytotoxic molecules could be used to destroy tumor cells, for instance, while cytoprotective molecules could serve to prevent the destruction of healthy cells ¿ neurons in the case of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson¿s and Alzheimer¿s) and cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) in the case of myocardial infarction.

Edelman said she hopes to have a drug candidate successfully tested in vitro within 15 months, in time for negotiating the next funding round. But it will be two or three years before Theraptosis would be ready to take a product into clinical development, she said.