DUBLIN, Ireland - EirX Therapeutics Ltd., an early stage firm applying functional genomics techniques to the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, raised EUR3.6 million (US$3.3 million) in second-round funding.

World Life Sciences plc, of London, led the round, while its first-round backers, 3i plc, of London, and Enterprise Ireland, a government industrial development agency, also participated. These organizations invested EUR1.5 million in the company last year.

CEO Peter Daly declined to reveal the present capitalization of the company. "We're not pushing the valuation really, at this point in time," he said. The Cork-based company will seek a more substantial injection of finance within the next 18 to 24 months, he said.

The EirX name has been around since 1997, when Peter Daly and Chief Scientific Officer Tom Cotter, who is professor of biochemistry at University College Cork (UCC), decided to form a company to focus on apoptosis-related disease targets. Cotter is an authority on apoptosis, a fundamental biological process that regulates the orderly destruction of cells within the body. Aberrations in its regulation can trigger a variety of disorders. Excessive activity can lead to stroke, ischemia and neurodegenerative disease, while insufficient activity can give rise to cancer and autoimmune disease.

The company's current business plan received backing last year. It aims to develop what Daly called "second-generation" apoptosis therapeutics. EirX, he said, is the only European company with an exclusive focus on this area. "We basically see ourselves as being the European challenge to Idun," he said, referring to Idun Pharmaceuticals Inc., of La Jolla, Calif.

That company has significant patent positions covering the use of caspases, which are cytoplasmic cysteine proteases involved in mediating the late-stage effects of apoptosis.

EirX has taken a different tack. "We're working on earlier-stage targets. We think there are some advantages in that," Daly said. The genes encoding caspases are highly conserved across different tissue types, he said, and that may limit the usefulness of caspases as targets to acute settings, as they may not be sufficiently tissue-specific to permit chronic drug use.

But there is considerable evidence in the literature, he said, that individual tissues also have "what might be called private pathways" that play a role in apoptotic processes. EirX's target discovery activities are focused on these aspects of apoptosis signaling.

"We have fairly original and valuable expression data," Daly said. However, the company is keeping its proprietary ideas on apoptosis signal transduction under wraps at present. It has four patent applications in the U.S. and UK under way, and UCC is in the process of assigning it rights to a fifth.

The company has assembled a target discovery and validation platform comprising cell biology, functional genomics and bioinformatics capabilities. Its lead programs are in the area of chronic inflammatory disease and cancer. It plans to license out targets to pharmaceutical companies, as well as develop its own candidates internally.

EirX's progress coincides with the first stirrings of an upturn in Ireland's biotechnology sector, which has long suffered from chronic under-investment. "There has been an increasing amount of interest [from the investment community] in the last quarter," said Daly, who previously worked as a pharmaceutical analyst with Davy Stockbrokers Ltd., of Dublin. Business incubator Growcorp Group of Dublin launched a EUR12.5 million seed capital fund during this period for information technology and life sciences companies, while Enterprise Ireland is believed to be close to launching a specialist life sciences fund, called Seroba Ventures.