JERUSALEM - Claude Cohen is celebrating the birth of the latest drug candidate to come out of the proprietary 3-dimensional computerized molecular design technologies of Synergix Ltd., which he founded in 1996.

In January, Synergix initiated a collaboration with Moshe Kotler, a professor of molecular genetics at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical School, with the aim of trying to find small molecules that can stop the proliferation of HIV.

"The approach takes advantage of a yet-unexploited biological mechanism that we expect may be able to overcome resistance to currently employed drugs and promises to open up an entirely new therapeutic route," Cohen said.

According to Cohen, the drug could reach the market as soon as four to five years. In the meantime, Jerusalem-based Synergix has obtained about $1.5 million in backing from private European and Israeli investors and the Ministry of Industry and Trade Office of the Chief Scientist.

Cohen, Synergix CEO, is convinced that computer modeling, mainly using the public access data from the Human Genome Project and other public databases, is the future of drug discovery. His experience is to select only those molecules that conform to desired therapeutic requirements, which are then synthesized for biological testing. "By visualizing biological capabilities through computer models, we eliminate many time-consuming and costly laboratory experiments," Cohen told BioWorld International.

He described the "groundbreaking technologies" that he introduced 15 years ago and proved as research team leader at Hoechst-Roussel in Paris and Ciba-Geigy in Basel, Switzerland, "pioneering an entirely new discipline in drug discovery based on computerized approaches." These were proved to accelerate the drug discovery process by generating eight lead compounds in less than 10 years, including Diovan (valsartan), which yielded about $500 million in sales in 1999 alone. Cohen's group contributed 15 patents on lead molecules. "What is especially remarkable about Diovan, and the other drugs we developed, is the short time it took to go from discovery to product launch - about six years for Diovan".

Cohen, venturing out on his own, brought this high-tech approach to Israel, because he could set up his own company with limited investment and enlist the pool of computer and life scientists that Israel offers.

"We assembled a world-class team of information technology experts, molecular modelers, medicinal chemists and biologists with an advisory board of 20 prominent international scientists," Cohen said.

"Synergix has chosen a very thoughtful path in drug discovery. With a small staff maximizing brain power, Synergix can do extremely well in providing lead molecules of great value to large pharmaceutical companies," said Synergix board member Alex Wlodawer, who directs the National Cancer Institute's Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center in Frederick, Md.

Synergix was selected just after its founding to participate with the elite of Israeli biotechnology in a $50 million Infrastructure Technologies Projects (the Magnet Consortium) funded by the Israel Ministry of Industry and Trade.

"More than 10,000 protein targets have been described in 3-D, which are available in the public domain," Cohen said. "But the number of people who know how to convert this structural information into a drug is very limited."

Haim Aviv, one of the founders of Israeli biotechnology and CEO of Rehovot-based Pharmos Ltd., agreed, saying that he expected to see less bench-oriented molecular biology research and more bioinformatics. "With Israel's worldwide reputation in computer-based technologies, together with the large life sciences infrastructure in the academic institutions, Israel is well oriented to take advantage of this coupling of molecular biology, mathematics and computers."

Synergix is working on three major leads against AIDS, cardiovascular indications, hypertension, cancer and other proliferative diseases. "We have developed technologies for the creation of 'intelligent' molecules able to correct aberrations of highly coordinated signaling processes generated in proliferative diseases," Cohen said, further hinting at the importance of those therapies working via signal transduction.

The company's strategy is to license molecules with potentially high therapeutic potency as drug leads to pharmaceutical companies for development. The company has initiated contacts with potential partners in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Synergix was created with private money from European and Israeli investors and now the company is poised for a $4 million private placement in the U.S., and also is in advanced negotiations with a leading genomics company for the sale of several dozen molecules for a single indication, and, in another project, to target development of a cancer therapeutic.

"We expect our portfolio of drug leads to expand rapidly in the next few years as the data furnished by the mapping results comes out of the Human Genome Project and enters our expanding pipeline," Cohen said.

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