By Chris Delporte

Norak Biosciences Inc.¿s mission is to become a global leader in the discovery and development of drugs that regulate G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). The company¿s first collaboration agreement, disclosed Wednesday, brings it a step closer to that goal.

Based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Norak is a privately held company founded in 1999. The company¿s lead product, its Transfluor drug discovery technology, is a cell-based fluorescence bioassay used to screen for GPCR ligands. Transfluor is designed to be the most direct and accurate method for screening potential drug candidates against GPCR targets, whether known or orphan, the company said. Norak said the technology will enable the discovery of new drugs in the areas of cardiovascular, neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases, as well as gastrointestinal diseases.

The collaborative agreement was signed with Amersham Pharmacia Biotech Inc., of Piscataway, N.J., the life sciences business of Amersham plc, of London, which will provide its LEADseeker Cell Analysis System. According to Amersham, LEADseeker is the first automated, laser-based confocal fluorescence imager for high-throughput screening of live, whole assays. The technology for LEADseeker was developed at Praelux Inc., which Amersham purchased last year.

¿[Amersham] Pharmacia had advanced analysis technology that was tailor-made to image our technology at the cellular level,¿ Terry Willard, Norak¿s vice president, corporate and business development, told BioWorld Today. ¿We think there is a lot of synergy between the two technologies. We¿ve decided to collaborate on some first-mover-type customers.¿

Norak said the combination of the technologies, both of which just became commercially available, has the potential to substantially accelerate GPCR drug discovery by combining the predictive accuracy and quantitative data normally acquired from multiple screens into one primary screening exercise. This will allow researchers to observe the direct effect of a drug candidate on live cells. Financial terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

¿Both Transfluor and the LEADseeker cell analysis system are breakthroughs in drug discovery technology,¿ Roger Blevins, president and CEO of Norak, said in a press release.

GPCRs are cell surface targets that bind to drugs that cause changes in intracellular function. According to Norak, GPCRs historically are the richest receptor targets for drug discovery and are involved in nearly 60 percent of all prescription drugs on the market today. The company said the potential for GPCR-based drugs remains untapped because only approximately 200 of the drug targets are functionally known. It estimates that there are another thousand orphan GPCRs.

In August 1999, Norak exclusively licensed Transfluor from technology developed at Duke University in Durham, N.C., by Norak¿s scientific founders, Marc Caron, Robert Lefkowitz and Larry Barak.

¿We¿re at the stage right now where we¿ve developed the technology from Duke successfully and now we can begin to commercialize it,¿ Willard said. ¿The collaboration with Amersham is the beginning of that process.¿

In addition to its agreement with Amersham, Norak is exploring relationships with other imaging manufacturers. By diversifying its collaborative partnerships and technological scope, Norak hopes to be able to market its product to a number of pharma companies.

¿There are three other equipment manufacturers with relevant technology, and we are at various stages of discussions with those companies,¿ Willard explained. ¿This will make sure that our assay is broadly enabled.¿

Norak completed its seed round of funding in April 2000, which raised $3.4 million. The primary investors were Intersouth Partners, of Durham, N.C., and The Aurora Funds Inc., located in Research Triangle Park. Each invested approximately $1.5 million. Blevins and Willard also invested in the first funding round.

The company currently is pursuing its second round, which it expects to close sometime this fall. Willard said the latest financing should raise $10 million, half provided by a new investor. Previous investors would provide the other half. ¿A major component of our long-term strategy is our own drug discovery and development program. The additional funds will be used to purchase new compound libraries and for hiring,¿ he said.

In the short term, Norak¿s goal is to offer its technology to the industry through licensing and screening services.