By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

Privately held Achillion Pharmaceuticals Inc. raised $17 million in its first round of financing to push its antiviral compounds toward clinical trials.

"We're still in preclinical development," said Lisa Dunkle, senior vice president of drug development at New Haven, Conn.-based Achillion. "We expect to be in humans at the end of this year or the beginning of next year."

Continuing its research collaboration with Yale University, also of New Haven, Achillion has in-licensed three new antiviral compounds. The company is particularly interested in HIV, hepatitis and herpes, although a proportion of resources allocated to efforts regarding has not been established, Dunkle said.

"Investors have been clear that the resources are available to do what we have to do," she said, adding that, "because of the nature of the disease and the regulatory process," the HIV program may be the strongest.

"Our lead compound shows good potency against [hepatitis and HIV], and I have every expectation that both programs will be successful," she said.

Achillion's core technology targets zinc fingers. In HIV, zinc fingers help new viruses replicated. When zinc fingers are blocked, HIV makes copies of itself that cannot infect new cells.

"That's an absolutely new and unique target for HIV, as well as a number of other viruses, and perhaps other pathogens," Dunkle said. William Rice, president and CEO of Achillion, who formerly worked as a senior scientist with the National Cancer Institute, pioneered the approach. Yung-Chi Cheng, of Yale, co-founded Achillion with Rice, and is chairman of the scientific advisory board for the company.

In February, Achillion signed a licensing agreement with Vion Pharmaeuticals Inc., also of New Haven, for the latter's novel nucleoside analogue B(beta)-L-Fd4C, for the potential treatment of hepatitis B and HIV. Yale had been granted a patent for it against those indications in October 1996, and Vion licensed exclusive worldwide rights from Yale, which Achillion now has licensed from Vion.

Preclinical studies showed the compound inhibited hepatitis B in a way superior to other, competitive antivirals, and may do so with less-frequent dosing.

Venture capital in Achillion's first financing round was provided by Schroder Ventures, Atlas Venture, Advent International and Connecticut Innovations Inc.

Dunkle said the company, which has fewer than a dozen employees, is "growing very rapidly."

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