LONDON ¿ Microscience Ltd., of London, has been granted U.S. patents for its functional-genomics platform technology, Signature Tagged Mutagenesis (STM), a direct and rapid method for identifying virulence genes in bacteria. Using the technique, the company has already identified and filed patents on 12 potential targets for the prevention and treatment of microbial infections.

Rod Richards, CEO of Microscience, told BioWorld International the company has ¿received very broad protection for a technology which has very broad applicability. We clearly have a technology which will allow us to get into targets which other companies can¿t. In addition, the know-how we have built up in STM in the 18 months since the company was formed has further expanded its usefulness. Using STM, we immediately know what the function of a gene is [that is, if it is virulent] and can find the expressed protein.¿

Microscience is applying the technique in three ways: knocking out the virulence gene to produce an attenuated bacteria for use as a vaccine; using the product of a virulence gene as a sub-unit vaccine; and using the protein which the virulence gene switches on in the host as the target for antimicrobial drugs.

STM was invented by one of Microscience¿s founding scientists, David Holden. Rather than knocking out one gene after another and separately testing the ability of each mutant to cause infection, STM makes it possible to screen large numbers of mutants in a single animal. Each mutant is tagged with a DNA identifier, or signature, which can be used to identify those mutants which are capable of replication.

Richards said the company intends to use STM to generate products for its own vaccines pipeline, and does not, at present, plan to license out STM. Its lead product is an attenuated salmonella which it is developing as an oral vaccine against typhoid. This is due to go into development this year and Microscience recently appointed Steven Chatfield as development director from Medeva plc, where he was director of biotechnology, to take the program forward.

At Medeva, Chatfield was responsible for the development of Hepagene, a hepatitis B vaccine, and the early development of an oral typhoid vaccine, which Medeva subsequently licensed to Peptide Therapeutics plc, of Cambridge.

The company¿s second candidate is a sub-unit vaccine for pregnant women against Group B Streptococcus, the most common lethal infection affecting newborns.

Microscience says it has set up a development program which will allow it to move rapidly into clinical trials. ¿Often, when you go into a smaller biotech company, you get good clinical results, but the package you are offered is no good for commercialization,¿ Chatfield said. ¿We will get to the clinic fast and license out after Phase II, offering a package of clinical results which will be matched with other information required for rapid commercialization.¿

Microscience was founded in May 1997 with #250,000 (US$407,000) from the start-up venture fund Merlin Ventures Ltd., around technology developed at Imperial College School of Medicine, in London (formerly the Royal Postgraduate Medical School). It raised a further #2.5 million in November 1997. Richards said the company will need to find further funding this year.

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