LONDON - Start-up Cambridge Genetics Limited (CGL) has raised #4 million (US$6.4 million) to commercialize technology for engineering the proteins found on the surface membrane of certain viruses. These membrane proteins control the fusion of the viruses to receptors on the cell surface, allowing viruses to get inside the cells they infect.

CGL, based in Cambridge, intends to apply the technology to the discovery and development of novel therapeutics, initially in the treatment of cancer. The company has already developed a number of high throughput, cell-based assays in which a chimerical virus, with a non-viral protein attached to its surface, is used to screen for the presence or absence of specific receptors.

The funding has come from 3i Group plc; Alta Berkeley Associates; and MVM, the venture fund set up by the government-funded research organization, Medical Research Council.

Simon Kerr, CEO, told BioWorld International the #4 million would last until the second half of 2000, by which time he expects to generate hits from these screens. "We will then raise a second round of funding to undertake the optimization of these compounds, before partnering," he said. Kerr, who was formerly chief operating officer of the genomics company Gemini Holdings plc, said this initial internal work would demonstrate the power of CGL's technology. "We will keep our focus on cancer, but after proving the technology will work with partners in other therapeutic areas," he said.

The technology will also be exploited in gene therapy, where it can be used in two ways: to target gene delivery to specific cell types such as cancer cells, leaving non-cancer cells unaffected; and to engineer viral membrane proteins to cause extensive fusion of cancer cells, leading to cancer cell death while leaving normal cells intact.

CGL has agreed to a license and collaboration agreement with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to develop gene therapies for cancer using CGL's technology. The program will be directed by Stephen Russell, director of molecular medicine at the clinic, who is a scientific co-founder of CGL. The other scientific co-founder is Francois-Loic Cosset, of the University of Lyon in France. The two have been working together on viral membrane protein engineering systems since 1991.