PARIS ¿ A French start-up, EntoMed, raised FFr21 million (US$3.6 million) for research into antimicrobial peptides derived from the immune response of insects, and to take resulting human therapies into preclinical development. The company was incorporated in January and, according to general manager John B. Hawken, hopes to have recruited a dozen research scientists by the end of this year.

The private offering was subscribed by three venture capital funds: Atlas Venture, of Amsterdam and Boston; CDC Innovation, of Paris; and Oxford Bioscience Partners, of Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as Rhtne-Poulenc Santi Vigitale et Animale, the plant and animal health division of French chemical giant Rhtne-Poulenc, which is based in Lyon. Hawken told BioWorld International the initial funding will last a couple of years, and EntoMed plans to start preclinical trials next year.

The company has been set up to exploit the discoveries made by a research team headed by Jules A. Hoffmann, of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology (IMCB) of the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS, or Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). Hoffman is regarded as the world¿s leading expert in the development of antimicrobial peptides derived from insects¿ immune systems, and is president of EntoMed¿s scientific advisory board. Apart from Hawken, the only staff member recruited so far is scientific director Jean-Luc Dimarcq. Like the IMCB, EntoMed has its headquarters and research facilities in Strasbourg, France.

EntoMed has been granted exclusive worldwide licenses for the use of these natural peptides in human health therapeutics by Rhtne-Poulenc, which funded much of the IMCB¿s research and patented its discoveries. These natural antimicrobial peptides are key elements in the immune systems of insects, which have developed a highly efficient method for circumventing microbial infections. Their immune response essentially relies on a battery of small cationic antimicrobial peptides with a broad spectrum of activity against bacteria and fungi, which kill pathogens by a mechanism that reduces the emergence of drug-resistant microbial strains.

EntoMed is focusing its research program on the development of new antifungal drugs and antibiotics in general, and on infections contracted in hospitals in particular. Nosocomial infections kill around 10,000 people a year in French hospitals alone.

According to Hawken, while a few companies in the U.S. and elsewhere produce antimicrobial peptides derived from animals, EntoMed is the only one using insects as its source. He said there was no restriction on the type of insect that could be used, although most of the IMCB¿s work had involved caterpillars. n