Berlin-based Atugen AG entered a research collaboration with F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., of Basel, Switzerland, to study gene function in vivo using Atugen's GeneBlocs antisense RNA technology.

Financial terms were not disclosed. Atugen business development manager Zisi Fotev told BioWorld International that the deal was not very large in financial terms, but "if it works" it could lead to a substantial agreement.

Atugen will perform identification of GeneBlocs (antisense RNA molecules) that display strong inhibition of gene expression in cell-based assays, and Roche will use lead candidates for unspecified in vivo applications. This marks Atugen's 10th partnering agreement and its sixth since it was spun out of the target validation and discovery business of Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Boulder, Colo., in 1998.

Since then, it has developed proprietary lipid formulations for packaging and delivering GeneBlocs to target cells. Fotev said this aspect of antisense RNA has been overlooked by many competitors, as most use commercially available alternatives. Atugen now has developed over 500 individual formulations with differing tissue and target specificities.

The lipids also offset cell toxicity effects associated with antisense RNA that can lead to false positives in screening programs.

The company also is progressing a cancer program internally. The aim, said associate director of research Anke Klipper, is to understand the sequence of events that trigger tumorgenesis. The project is focusing on the p10 tumor suppressor system, which is responsible for the destruction of transient secondary messengers produced by PI3-kinase, which have an anti-apoptotic effect. "The signaling cascade is worked out quite decently, but nothing is really known in the long term," Klipper said.

Atugen is using GeneBlocs to induce alterations in gene expression and work back toward the key molecular alterations that lead to tumorgenesis, using time course experiments that measure intracellular RNA populations. It has so worked with cell cultures, but is now moving into animal studies.

The company received US$20 million in first-round funding early last year. It remains on track for an IPO in the second quarter next year, Fotev said, and is about to close off a second financing round very shortly. "It's going to be about EUR20 million," he said.

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