PARIS - A new biotechnology company based in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille recently completed an initial funding round in which it raised FFr30 million (US$4.5 million) to finance a drug development program based on the pharmacological manipulation of non-conventional lymphocytes. Called Innate Pharma, it was founded in September 1999 and aims to develop novel therapies for the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

Innate CEO Hervi Brailly told BioWorld International the funds were provided by three European venture capital funds - Paris-based Sofinnova, Auriga, also of Paris, and GIMV, of Antwerp, Belgium. The operation was completed at the end of April and enabled the company to initiate its research and development activities and start recruiting additional staff - it currently has a work force of eight. During its first six months, it subsisted on a grant from the Rhtne-Poulenc Innovation Foundation, another from the French Ministry of Research under its program for promoting the creation of new businesses, and funding from the National Research Promotion Agency

Innate Pharma was created by a group of six scientists and management professionals, two of whom, Brailly and research and development director Frangois Romagni, are full-time employees. Both previously worked for another French biotechnology company, Immunotech, which is now part of the U.S. group Beckman Coulter. The other four founders are scientists working at public research and/or teaching institutions who are overseeing Innate Pharma's research and development program in a non-executive capacity. Two of them, Eric Vivier, of the Marseille-Cluny Immunology Center run by France's National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm), and Alessandro Moretta, professor of experimental medicine at Genoa University in Italy, hold a patent for their research into natural killer (NK) lymphocytes. The other two, Jean-Jacques Fournii and Marc Bonneville, are attached to two other Inserm laboratories and hold a patent for their work on the activation of type gd lymphocytes.

These patents are held by Inserm, which has licensed them to Innate along with a number of others. The company thus possesses a patent portfolio that includes validated targets, reagents and assays, in addition to which it has concluded research agreements with a number of European academic institutions. As Brailly pointed out, the company's investors were persuaded by two things: "an internationally recognized scientific network with expertise in immunology, and the launch of a clinical study of existing molecules.''

Those existing molecules belong to a novel family of organic compounds, the phosphohalohydrins (PHDs), which were discovered by Bonneville and Fournii. Thanks to the immuno-regulatory properties of gd T cells, they are being developed directly as injectable drugs, and Innate hopes to have a lead compound in Phase I/II clinical trials within 18 months. In addition, Brailly said, the ability of non-conventional lymphocytes to kill tumor targets means they are also easy to manipulate ex vivo, so the second arm of the company's strategy is to develop cell therapies from the same compounds. This entails removing NK lymphocytes from patients, activating them in vitro, and then reinjecting them into the patients.

Innate Pharma describes its ability to control the activation of NK and gd cells using new groups of chemically defined agonists and antagonists as its core technology. Unlike conventional lymphocytes, which activate an immune response to a pathogen that is specific to each individual, these non-conventional lymphocytes (which include CD1-restricted gd lymphocytes as well as NK cells and gd T lymphocytes) do not recognize the antigen associated with an individual-specific molecule, which enables antigen recognition to be pharmacologically manipulated. This feature of the company's activity explains its name and its sobriquet, the "innate immunity company.''

While its drug development is focused on cancer, Brailly pointed out that "the manipulation of immunity opens up very interesting prospects in other clinical indications, such as allergy, autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases.'' He said the company would soon start negotiating co-development agreements with pharmaceutical companies and that it was looking in particular for partners to develop applications for its compounds outside the oncology area. Further down the road, when its compounds have added value, Innate would seek to conclude commercialization agreements with big pharma, he added.

Brailly is not anticipating a further funding round for two or three years, once Innate has completed validation studies, preclinical development and Phase I/II trials of a lead PHD and has thus established proof of principle. Following a second funding round in 2002 or 2003, Brailly expects a further two years will be required to complete Phase II trials and demonstrate the drug's efficacy, after which the company would be in a position to launch an IPO.

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