By Alan Sverdlik

Tranzyme Inc., slender in size but gargantuan in ambition, bulked up overnight after it forged its first industry partnership, a collaboration that melds Tranzyme¿s expertise in protein expression with NeoGenesis Inc.¿s chemical genomics.

By any yardstick, the alliance is an important milestone, said Vipin Garg, CEO of Birmingham, Ala.-based Tranzyme, which was founded in 1998.

¿It¿s very easy to create lots of technologies and still be at the bottom of the S¿ curve. There are good technologies out there that never see the light of day,¿ Garg told BioWorld Today. ¿It is so important in today¿s environment to validate your technology through a partnership.¿

Satish Jindal, NeoGenesis¿ president and chief scientific officer, said his firm¿s relationship with Tranzyme was based strictly on research and development, with only ¿a minimal financial input. If their technology works, and we believe it will, we would like to have a more substantial deal with them,¿ he said.

In a broad sense, the collaboration between the two privately held companies is the classic fusion of biology and chemistry. Under its terms, TExT, Tranzyme¿s proprietary gene delivery and protein expression technology, will be used to bolster NeoGenesis¿ chemistry-based genomics program, which is designed to quickly screen large numbers of disease-associated targets. NeoGenesis, of Cambridge, Mass., supplies Tranzyme with multiple sets of therapeutic, disease-associated gene sequences, which Tranzyme in turn will test on different mammalian cell lines.

¿One piece of our strategy is protein expression and production, and that brought us to Tranzyme,¿ Jindal said. ¿Our goal is to have technologies in this area that can produce thousands of high-quality proteins from genomics.¿

Tranzyme was the brainchild of University of Alabama medical school virologists ¿whose mission in life was to understand the HIV infection,¿ Garg said. Their strategy, which later became the scientific underpinning of the company, was to deconstruct the HIV genome, deprive it of its ability to produce infections and put it back together. ¿How do you dismantle it and put it back together so it can never recombine, and thus never be pathogenic? That¿s what they were trying to find out,¿ Garg explained.

The virologists, who are on the medical school faculty, serve as Tranzyme consultants, Garg said.

One of Tranzyme¿s original goals was to develop lentiviruses, a subfamily of retroviruses that can enter nondividing cells, which very few retroviruses can do. ¿These things can enter anything,¿ Garg said. ¿They¿re a weapon that can be broadly applied to gene therapy. All we have to do is make them safe.¿

Lentiviruses remain part and parcel of Tranzyme, which is in the early stages of developing lentiviral genetic-based technology. There are two such technologies, Garg said: TranzAssay, a test for HIV drug resistance, and TranzVector, which dismantles and reconstructs HIV in such as way as to maintain its capacity to deliver genes while destroying its ability to infect.

In its young life, however, Tranzyme has morphed into a different company than the one that was incubated in a university laboratory.

¿When the company was founded, all the focus was on HIV research,¿ Garg said. Now, he said, there has been an accumulation of several layers of know-how on top of Tranzyme¿s HIV therapies. For instance, he said, the company is presently focused on ¿taking out proteins from the genome and delivering them individually,¿ rather than delivery of ¿the whole genome on one construct.¿

Garg, who had been the chief operating officer at Apex Bioscience Inc., of Research Triangle Park, N.C., became CEO in 2000, almost a year after a $2 million private placement in Tranzyme by two venture funds, Pacific Rim Ventures, of Tokyo, and Paradigm Venture Partners, based in Birmingham, Ala. Each firm invested $1 million, Garg said.

Tranzyme has 12 employees, but Garg expects his work force to almost triple by the middle of next year. By 2003, there could be as many as 50 employees, he said.

Tranzyme has entered into partnerships with about 20 universities, and is in the early stages of a research and development relationship with Biogen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., that could crystallize into a partnership in five or six months, Garg said. Biogen is testing Tranzyme-provided genes in various cell and animal models, Garg said.

¿We see the potential of 10 to 20 partnerships in the next 12 months,¿ he said, ¿and those partnerships are going to drive the value of the company.¿

What makes Tranzyme an attractive collaborator? ¿We bring the biology to companies that have chemistry-based drug discovery programs,¿ he said.