By Jim Shrine

California scientists with expertise in the emerging area of cytoskeletal pharmacology have formed a new company focused on this novel area of cell biology.

Backed by an initial financing of more than $5 million, Cytokinetics Inc., of South San Francisco, intends to combine drug-discovery capabilities with cellular informatics technology. The company began operations in July and unveiled itself earlier this month at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Francisco.

"In many ways this was a mature birth, because a lot of the technologies had been developed and incubating, and were licensed exclusively to the company as founding intellectual property," said Cytokinetics president and CEO James Sabry, who is one of four founding scientists. "This represented the first commercialization of an area that has been developing very quickly over the last number of years in the academic arena."

Sabry said Cytokinetics is the first and only company focused on the cytoskeleton, which is the multi-component framework involved in all aspects of cell mechanics, including cell division, motility, transport and regulation of cell polarity and organization. This will lead to novel drug targets, drug classes and mechanisms of action, Sabry told BioWorld Today.

"No other company is focused on the cytoskeleton," he said. "Certain areas, such as microtubules, have been areas of drug discovery for a long time. Cytokinetics is taking a broader approach, by developing technologies covering the whole breadth of the cytoskeleton."

The company's other founders are Larry Goldstein, professor of pharmacology and molecular medicine and Howard Hughes investigator at the University of California at San Diego; James Spudich, former professor and chairman of biochemistry at Stanford Medical School; and Ron Vale, professor of cellular/molecular pharmacology and Howard Hughes investigator at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).

"We really are a team," said Sabry, formerly an assistant professor at UCSF. "We've known each other for 10 years. A number of the patents were written by more than one founder."

The initial financing was provided by venture financiers the Mayfield Fund, of Menlo Park, Calif.; Sevin Rosen Funds, of Palo Alto, Calif.; Roy Vagelos, former chairman and CEO of Merck & Co., of Whitehouse Station, N.J.; and Robert Swanson, the founder and former CEO of Genentech Inc., of South San Francisco.

The company's initial focus will be in the areas of cancer, infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease, with a first partnership expected in 1999. Cytokinetics intends to generate revenue though collaborations in drug discovery, providing informatics services and selling database products.

It already has high-throughput assays in operation and is developing cellular imaging capabilities. The bioinformatics technologies are expected to be ready for partnering in about a year.

"It's a company with a novel business model that includes not only a drug-discovery component, but also cellular bioinformatics," Sabry said. "This business model allows us to diversify away some of the risks associated with a platform company or a drug-discovery company. We've thought long and hard about business models in the biotech area. Only a few have been used. We believe we've come up with one that is novel."

In the bioinformatics area, Cytokinetics is developing the Cytometrix cellular product line, consisting of a series of databases on cytoskeletal pharmacology, high-resolution image tools and advanced automated instrumentation.

The technology "will address a number of bottlenecks in the pharmaceutical industry related to understanding mechanisms of action, toxicity identification, disease model selection and, eventually, clinical trial design and patient management," Sabry said. "We'll be able to generate therapeutics with a heightened level of specificity and, we believe, effectiveness."

Partners will be provided discrete, validated molecular target sets engineered into high-throughput screening systems, along with a custom series of secondary cellular biological and biochemical tools for "advanced characterization of small-molecule therapeutic lead compounds," the company said. *