By Matthew Willett

Inex Pharmaceuticals Corp. formed a new company called Protiva Biotherapeutics Inc. to develop and commercialize its gene delivery technology.

The technology will be applied to drugs targeted against cancer and inflammatory disease, Inex said. The new company was funded by a C$1.5 million (US$1 million) round of seed financing, and the company expects it will follow the seed round with a larger round of venture capital financing.

Inex owns about 85 percent of Protiva after the seed round, and expects to have about a 50 percent stake in the company after its first round of venture capital financing is completed.

The company now has seven employees, but should expand to about 20 in the next year to fuel the development of its gene delivery technology.

The gene delivery technology, called SPLP (stable plasmid-lipid particle), has been proof-of-principle tested in animal models, Inex said. Studies have demonstrated that an anticancer gene drug packaged in the proprietary delivery technology expresses a therapeutic protein and reduces tumors at distal sites.

Inex, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, focuses on anticancer therapeutic development. Inex President and CEO David Main said the spin-off will allow his company to focus on that platform in the future.

"I have a very firm belief in the strategy that to make a company successful you have to be focused," Main told BioWorld Today. "Inex has a lot of technology on its plate, and we felt this technology was not getting the investment it needed to be successful."

The technology is different from any other gene delivery technology, Main said, but maintains the positive aspects of both viral delivery vectors and lipoplex delivery.

"I think one of the reasons Protiva will get a lot of attention is that this technology has been worked on by Inex quietly, behind the scenes, and we've made a lot of advancement. It's not viral, but it's a fully encapsulated delivery method, where the DNA is fully protected and injected intravenously."

The SPLP technology is fully synthetic, he said, and can offer the protection of a viral vector without the immune response threat viral vectors carry.

"It has similarity to a viral system in that the virus fully encapsulates the drug, protecting the DNA inside," Main said. "We're creating a synthetic virus, one that's manufactured, not grown, and one that does not have the immunogenic properties or the safety concerns of viral delivery methods."

Protiva will focus on the therapeutic proteins market opened by the genomics boom. Main said the company hopes to have a target identified and at least one technology alliance by the end of the year. Protiva could put a drug candidate in the clinic within two and a half to three years, he added.

"One of the reasons the time is right for this is that the company is built around what's going on in genomics. One of the areas people believe will be explosive is the identification of novel and promising therapeutic proteins. Having a gene delivery mechanism shortens the time frame from gene to drug, and it fits well with what's going on in genomics."

And though other companies are developing gene delivery technology for proteins and gene drugs, Main said, Protiva's system is proven and unique.

"There are people working on gene delivery, mostly with viral or lipoplex systems, but none, to our knowledge, has tackled systemic delivery successfully," Main said. "Many have aspired, but Protiva has achieved systemic delivery."