By Randall Osborne

SEATTLE ¿ Speeding up early clinical trials and identifying drug targets more quickly by modeling virtual body systems is the approach of Physiome Sciences, an in silico biotechnology firm that signed a potential $15 million deal with PA Consulting Group to push the research to the next level.

Princeton, N.J.-based Physiome already has developed a ¿virtual heart,¿ a computer model that simulates the heart through mathematical equations and has been used in testing a new cardiovascular drug, as well as in the study of arrhythmia. With help from PA¿s software, the companies will formulate a model of the immune system ¿ and will model, eventually, the entire body, said Bill Scott, CEO of Physiome.

¿The PA system allows us to build systems out of organs and cells, but the software doesn¿t care what kind of elements you link,¿ Scott said. ¿[PA] approached us because they felt there was a synergy with biology.¿

The deal is expected to be disclosed today, and Scott will present details about Physiome¿s technology on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) here. The meeting, BIO ¿99, begins today.

¿We build models of cells and organs,¿ Scott told BioWorld Today. ¿We build a heart that you can use for drug discovery: a normal heart, a congestive heart. The building blocks are mathematical descriptions of functional properties of individual gene products.¿

Initial talks with contract research organizations have focused on using the heart model to detect cardiotoxicity of potential drugs ¿ detect it early.

¿You usually don¿t see it until Phase III, when you have very large trials,¿ Scott said. ¿It only comes up in 1 to 3 percent of patients. [Using the heart model], we can say it¿s either related to the mechanism of action of the drug, or it isn¿t.¿ Physiome also has a good prototype of the lung, Scott said.

For a larger model ¿ one that could benefit biotechnology firms across the board ¿ the immune system was a logical choice as the test case, he added.

¿You can think of the immune system as a disseminated endocrine gland,¿ Scott said. ¿It consists of different parts all over the body. It¿s ideal to use for this kind of thing, and gives us an opportunity to work out all the details.¿

Under the terms of the deal, Physiome acquires Organ Systems Modeling, a wholly owned subsidiary of PA that holds the exclusive license to PA¿s software in the field of health care. Physiome gets $10 million over the next 18 months, of which half is an equity investment and half is direct support. PA has the option to invest another $5 million in Physiome, if certain conditions are met.

¿Up until two years ago, there was never a full-scale model of a human or mammalian organ that was fully functional as a computer-based model,¿ Scott said. ¿Really, people began to do this modeling in the 1960s with single cells, but there wasn¿t sufficient computing power.¿

That has changed. More computing power at less cost has sped up the process exponentially. ¿A lot of people don¿t understand how fast this is moving,¿ Scott said. ¿It¿s going to have a major impact on biology.¿

The BIO meeting continues through Thursday. n