LONDON - Astex Technology Ltd., which uses high-throughput X-ray crystallography to solve protein structures, has agreed its second deal with Janssen Research Foundation, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson.

At the same time, the company, founded a year ago, said it embarked on its second round of funding, and is looking to raise in excess of the #3.3 million (US$4.8 million) secured to date.

CEO Timothy Haines told BioWorld International, "This is significant in terms of our development because it is the first deal where we have been asked to solve a [protein] structure."

This will then be used to optimize leads in a Janssen drug discovery project. "Significantly, we will retain the rights to the protein," Haines said. "Janssen is only interested in one disease area, and we could find other leads in the same disease area or apply it to other diseases."

Astex was founded by Harren Jhoti, a former head of structural biology and bioinformatics at Glaxo Wellcome plc, who is vice president of research, and Tom Blundell, head of biochemistry at Cambridge University, and an expert on protein structure and function and structure-based drug design.

The company, based in Cambridge, England, claims to have industrialized X-ray crystallography. It has speeded up the process of interpreting X-ray crystallography data, developing a system for going from crystals to structure automatically, and cutting the data analysis time from weeks to minutes.

Because it was previously a slow, manual process, which required experts to interpret the X-ray images, X-ray crystallography was used only in lead optimization, when a good lead compound had been identified. Astex said it has made the technique so fast and easy to use that it can now be used earlier in the lead-optimization process, and can be applied to lead discovery.

The deal with Janssen, of Beerse, Belgium, is the first of a number of lead-optimization deals expected to be announced in the next six months, the company said. Astex also is setting up an internal lead-discovery facility that will be validated in the next six months.

Haines said he has started to talk to potential investors for the second-round funding. "The sentiment for structural biology is very strong," he said. "There are U.S. companies that specialize in solving protein structures for use in lead optimization that have done very well [in fund raising]. Because our technology can also be applied to lead discovery we think we are at the higher value end of structural biology."

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