By Brady Huggett
Astex Technology Ltd. closed its first round of financing, raising British #22.7 million (US$32.5 million) to fuel the company¿s growth.
The Cambridge, UK-based company received investments from Advent International, of Boston; Alta Partners, of San Francisco; and GIMV NV, of Antwerp, Belgium. The investors join Abingworth Management Ltd., of London, and Oxford Bioscience Partners, of Boston, as part of Astex¿s shareholders base.
¿We will use it to continue to build our structure-based drug discovery technologies,¿ said Harren Jhoti, chief scientific officer at Astex. ¿We¿ll expand the company¿s skill base and grow the company. We have a strong position in protein expression and informatics, but we will look to broaden our technology base.¿
The funds, said Jhoti, should last somewhere from 18 months to two years. Look for another private round by privately held Astex, before the firm tests public waters.
¿We¿ve given reasonable thought that we won¿t go public on [the offering],¿ he said, adding that the company plans on becoming publicly traded, but will wait for the best time.
Jhoti and two others ¿ Tom Blundell and Chris Abell, both from Cambridge University in the UK ¿ founded the company in 1999, and it began operations in December of the same year. Jhoti had spent about the previous eight years with Glaxo Wellcome plc, of London, where he was head of structural biology and bioinformatics. The trio came up with the idea for the company¿s main technology.
Astex is built around high-throughput X-ray crystallography (HTX) for identification of drug candidates. Its HTX technology is part of an integrated structure-based drug discovery platform that includes technologies covering protein production, crystallization, structure determination, bioinformatics and computational and medicinal chemistry.
¿There are a lot of bottlenecks in X-ray crystallography,¿ Jhoti said. ¿We¿ve developed several solutions to those bottlenecks.¿ Jhoti said capturing images of lead compounds bound to target proteins usually requires manual intervention, but Astex has found a way to automate that with its AutoSolve technology, reducing the time needed to analyze ligand-protein interactions.
The company is also developing software in the large-scale docking arena and developing protein structure methods for obtaining protein crystals. It is focusing on using weak binding compounds ¿ called molecular fragments ¿ to screen low-molecular-weight fragments using the HTX methods.
Jhoti pointed to Astex¿s collaborations with Johnson & Johnson unit Janssen Pharmaceutica, of Beerse, Belgium, and the recently announced deal involving cytochrome P450 crystal structures with AstraZeneca AB, of London, as signs of Astex¿s ability to partner.
¿In the protein structure sector, we¿ve been very successful in getting corporate deals,¿ Jhoti said. ¿Our deals have shown and proved that we can provide strong technology.¿
Astex has about 50 employees now, and is looking for more. Its web site lists at least 10 positions for which the company is recruiting. The additional staff will be needed for the months ahead, Jhoti said.
¿In the next year, we will look to move some of our chemical leads into drug candidates and look to partner them with pharmaceutical [companies],¿ he said. ¿Some leads we may move ourselves. It will depend on the disease area ¿ the amount of validation around the target, for example. Clinical trials can be very difficult and very expensive. But in other areas it is more [feasible].¿