PARIS - The French genomics company ExonHit Therapeutics S.A. has raised EUR13.9 million (US$12.3 million) in a funding round that has brought in new investors. The three venture capital funds that participated in the company's first funding round, Oxford BioScience Partners of the U.S. and Paris-based CDC Innovation and Sofinnova Partners, have been joined by two more French institutions - the BNP Paribas banking group (led by two of its affiliates, Banexi Ventures and BNP Private Equity) and AGF Private Equity, the venture capital subsidiary of one of France's largest insurance companies.

ExonHit's CEO Bruno Tocqui told BioWorld International that the three existing shareholders put up 40 percent of the funds, maintaining a "blocking minority holding of around 33 percent between them." BNP provided much of the rest, securing a shareholding of close to 15 percent.

Paris-based ExonHit, which specializes in qualitative genomics analysis, was established in November 1997 and completed its first funding round in February 1998, raising FF24 million ($3.9 million). That round enabled the company to develop four research platforms in the fields of predictive toxicology, pharmacology, the identification of therapeutic and diagnostic leads, and drug discovery. Its first product, Safe-Hit, was launched on the European market in 1999 and is now used by a number of pharmaceutical companies in Europe for testing the toxicity of chemical compounds.

The funds ExonHit has now raised will enable the company to develop Safe-Hit for the U.S. market and complete the development of a second diagnostic product, Proof-Hit. To achieve the first of those goals, Tocqui said ExonHit would be setting up a research center in the U.S. this fall and was currently looking at sites in the Northeast. The product is already going through the regulatory approval process and could be on the U.S. market as early as January 2001, he added.

Proof-Hit is a set of diagnostic tools designed to select the most appropriate treatment for cancer sufferers, and Tocqui said the company planned to develop it "internationally." Validation trials were under way, and ExonHit is looking for a "pharmaceutical partner specialized in DNA diagnostics and interested in a unique technology" to participate in its clinical development. The company is expecting to conclude "important partnerships with renowned centers of clinical research and major pharmaceutical companies very shortly" for the development and commercialization of Proof-Hit and other new compounds.

The additional funds will also help ExonHit start clinical development of one or two therapeutic compounds identified in the course of its in-house drug discovery program. It has discovered a number of compounds using a core technology called DATAS (differential analysis of transcripts alternatively spliced), which detects qualitative changes in gene expression during a regulation process known as RNA splicing. "We are currently at the stage of selecting leads [to take] into clinical development," said Tocqui. "The most advanced lead is in the area of neurodegenerative diseases." He added that clinical trials would take place in Europe and could start by the autumn of 2001.

On the strength of a "diversified portfolio of products and services ensuring it a flow of revenues in the short, medium and long term," ExonHit expects to become profitable in 2003. Before that, in 2001, Tocqui says an initial public offering is planned on the Paris stock exchange, provided "the company has achieved certain objectives laid down by management."

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