LONDON ¿ Cyclacel Ltd., a cancer specialist focused on small-molecule inhibitors of the cell cycle, set up a wholly owned unit at Cambridge University to work on cancer genes involved in mitosis.

The unit, called Polgen, will be headed by David Glover, chairman of the university¿s Department of Genetics. He has carried out extensive research into one of the key events in cell division, the separation of the spindle at the G2/M phase of the cell cycle. That led to the identification of more than 100 mutations that appear to be effective in controlling cell division in cancer cells.

Spiro Rombotis, CEO of Cyclacel, based in Dundee, UK, told BioWorld International, ¿We have not disclosed the value of our investment in Polgen, but it is in the millions [of pounds]. The formation of Polgen means we have secured a large number of genomics targets to drive thro ugh our rational drug design process.¿ He added, ¿When Cyclacel was founded in 1996 it had three targets; now we have over 100.¿

Existing taxane drugs such as paclitaxel work by interfering with the mitotic spindle. Rombotis said that new drugs based on a thorough understanding of the G2/M phase and the molecular mechanisms of mitosis could be more effective and cause fewer side effects. ¿First, drugs based on these targets will be specific to the target, and so won¿t cause unwanted interactions; second, they stop cells from dividing so they could be more efficacious; third, it is known that cells are presenting in different stages of synchrony, so drugs based on these targets could be used in combination with [existing] chemotherapeutics to hit cancer cells at different stages of the cell cycle.¿

The funding is for the first two years, by which time Polgen will have eight employees, double the current staff. The university does not own any of the intellectual property, but Rombotis said that since Polgen will be housed there, the university would be given a stake.

Rombotis said Glover did give consideration to forming a start-up company, but the significant downturn in the biotechnology market last year made this too difficult. ¿He also understood that genes are not by themselves enough to produce a return for investors,¿ said Rombotis. ¿They are the basis of new therapeutics, but in order to take them forward a new company would have had rediscover the wheel, and build the same drug discovery operation as Cyclacel. David saw that by piggy-backing, things would go faster.¿

Glover was formerly professor of molecular genetics at Dundee University, and worked as a consultant at Cyclacel in 1999, when he was between academic posts. He also is director of the Cell Cycle Genetics group of the Cancer Research Campaign charity, and coordinator of the European Drosophila Genome Project, an academic consortium that has contributed to the recently completed global project to sequence the fruit fly genome.

Targets uncovered by Polgen will be transferred to Cyclacel¿s drug design facility in Dundee.

Cyclacel has raised #11.8 million (US$18.5 million) in private funding since its formation. Rom botis said that even with the investment in Polgen, there is enough money to last until the end of 2001 at the current burn rate. ¿However, we are about to go into the clinic, when the burn rate will accelerate. Given the upturn in the market, we are obviously thinking about raising money, and will decide in the next few weeks.¿