By Brady Huggett

Conforma Therapeutics Corp. closed its first round of financing, raising $15 million for its development and research costs.

The financing was led by Forward Ventures, of San Diego; ProQuest Investments, of Princeton, N.J.; Domain Associates, also of Princeton; Lombard Odier, of Zurich, Switzerland; and Inglewood Ventures, of San Diego. ProQuest previously invested in Conforma¿s seed round.

¿We expect [the funding] to last on the order of two years,¿ said Larry Fritz, president and CEO of San Diego-based Conforma. ¿We have plans both in terms of preclinical and clinical development of our research platform.¿

Fritz said the 16-person company is in the ramping-up stage and its burn rate is increasing. By the end of the year Conforma should have 30 employees, he said, and in all likelihood, Conforma would raise funds again sometime in 2002.

Fritz founded privately held Conforma in 1999, for all technical purposes, but it began operations after receiving its seed investment in the spring of 2000. Fritz used heat shock protein technology licensed from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to build Conforma¿s main platform, HALT. The original license was negotiated around the time of the founding, and the deal went through in early 2000, Fritz said.

The approach is based on molecular conjugates between HSP90-binding molecules and pharmacological ligands, linked by a molecular tether, and termed HALT technology. These HSP90 proteins, called chaperone proteins, potentially have anticancer and antitumor activity, Fritz told BioWorld Today.

¿The chaperone proteins are the cell¿s machinery for promoting the correct folding of proteins, such that proteins achieve the correct conformation,¿ Fritz said. ¿That¿s where the name Conforma comes from. HSP90 controls a set of signaling proteins. The essence of our technology is a way of changing the folding of proteins into the degradation of proteins. [The technology] converts HSP90 from a catalyst for folding into a catalyst for degradation.¿

Fritz added that some of the degraded proteins promote the survival of the tumor and its growth. By degradation, the technology therefore both inhibits tumor development and takes away its survival support.

Conforma has its first product, CNF-101, in preclinical work and Fritz said it should begin clinical trials in 2002. The technology first will be aimed at prostate and breast cancer, but should have applications across the cancer board, he said.

Sloan-Kettering¿s influence is still with Conforma. Neal Rosen and Samuel Danishefsky, the inventors of the patented technology Conforma was founded on, are on Conforma¿s scientific advisory board and Fritz described those at Sloan-Kettering as ¿close collaborators.¿ But, now with the first round closed, other collaborators should soon be on board, he said.

¿This is really our first operational round,¿ he said. ¿It enables us to create the critical mass of people, license additional technology, push our product toward the clinic and develop the HALT technology.

¿We envision the opportunities to deal with major pharma in specific applications in the HALT technology,¿ he added.

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