By Mary Welch

Elitra Pharmaceuticals Inc. raised $16 million in a private placement, bringing to $19 million the amount the company has raised in about a year for work in gene analysis and antimicrobial drug discovery.

"It was more than we were looking for," said Alana Wheeler, chief financial officer for the San Diego-based company. "We were founded in November 1997 and had our first round of financing in June 1998. Investors are interested in our technology, which is very fast for identifying essential genes. Plus we have a very strong management team, which helped."

Elitra was founded by Harry Hixson, the company's chairman and CEO and former chief operating officer and president of Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif. Gordon Foulkes, Elitra's executive vice president of research and development, is the former chief technical officer for Aurora Biosciences Corp., of San Diego.

Judith Zyskind, another Elitra founder, is chief scientific officer and Wheeler, former general manager at La Jolla, Calif.-based Advanced Tissue Sciences Inc., is the start-up company's vice president, business development in addition to CFO.

The money will be used to hire staff and expand its facility, as well as purchase chemical libraries.

The financing was led by InterWest Partners, of Menlo Park, Calif., and Walden Group, of San Francisco. A.M. Pappas & Associates, of Durham, N.C., was a new investor, joining existing investors Enterprise Partners of La Jolla, Calif., and Mayfield Fund, of Newport Beach, Calif. Arnold Oronsky of InterWest Partners and Charles Hsu of Walden Group joined the company's board of directors.

A research-stage company, Elitra employs ultra-rapid proprietary methods for gene analysis and antimicrobial drug discovery. The company's initial goal is to define all essential genes in major pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Elitra said it developed the ability to miniaturize antimicrobial drug screens. Elitra's technology assigns "essentiality" to both known and unknown gene sequences, which allows for the development of drug screens for any validated target in the database within two to three weeks.

"We will be using our rapid target discovery and validation technology to discover new drugs and create a patent estate of novel classes of targets in bacterial and fungal organisms," Wheeler said.

The company believes its technology has applications for a variety of areas ranging from crop protection to pharmaceuticals. The company's primary focus so far has been on bacterial pathogens, but the technology also is being applied to the fungal organisms Aspergillus fumigatus and Candida albicans. Among the bacteria being targeted initially are Escherichia coli, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Salmonella spp., Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus.

Elitra's assay technologies have a number of advantages over those from companies working in the same area, Wheeler said.

The assays use intact, pathogenic organisms, not surrogate cell systems. The assays are cell-based but allow a hit compound's mechanism to be readily defined. In addition, the host organisms have been engineered to be specifically sensitive to compounds that inhibit the targets of interest, allowing the detection of novel hit compounds even from libraries that have been screened previously for antimicrobial activity.

The company has been successful raising private money, as the $16 million financing shows, and wants to have similar success in forming corporate partnerships, particularly with companies interested in the clinical development of bacterial or fungal anti-infectives.

"We don't have any announcements but we're gearing up for a lot of things to go on in the next three to six months," Wheeler said.