By Jim Shrine

Novirio Pharmaceuticals got off to a good start, with an initial financing of $12 million to support its work in developing antiviral drugs.

The company, based in Cambridge, Mass., and Paris, is managed by personnel with extensive experience in developing antiviral drugs, particularly against HIV. The large seed financing suggests investors are confident some of their earlier successes will be duplicated with the start-up company.

"We have the people, the experience, the technology, and are strongly supported by venture capital," Bruno Lucidi, Novirio's president and CEO, told BioWorld Today. "We feel we should achieve our goal."

BB Bioventures LP, also of Cambridge, led the financing, a joint venture between MPM Asset Management LLC, of Cambridge, and Bellevue Asset Management, of Zug, Switzerland.

Novirio intends to takes its lead compound, a nucleoside analogue reverse transcriptase inhibitor called NV-01, into the clinic early next year and follow that in 1999 with investigational new drug applications for NV-02 and NV-03. The lead candidate has shown activity against HIV. The second compound will be for hepatitis B virus (HBV), and the third has shown activity against both HBV and HIV, said Bruno Lucidi, Novirio's president and CEO.

Lucidi was head of the virology efforts in Europe for New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. when it launched the HIV drugs Videx (ddI) and Zerit (d4T).

Novirio's vice president of medical affairs, Maureen Myers, was director of infectious disease research at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc., a subsidiary of Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, of Ingelheim, Germany, and headed clinical development when the company developed Viramune (nevirapine), the first non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor for HIV. Martin Bryant, the company's vice president of research and development, was vice president of research at Aviron, of Mountain View, Calif., and director of virology for G.D. Searle & Co., of Skokie, Ill.

Founder and Chairman Jean-Pierre Sommadossi is a professor of pharmacology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The company's core technologies have been licensed from academic institutions of the founders, including UAB, Emory University in Atlanta and the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), in Strasbourg, France.

"There is an urgent need for additional drugs to manage chronic HIV infection," Lucidi said. "New options are definitely needed."

Novirio has 15 employees, and already has manufacturing agreements in place, as well as late-stage discussions ongoing with potential academic collaborators, Lucidi said.

In addition, the company intends to retain all rights to its products in Europe and the U.S., so capital will be an important part of the business plan. Lucidi said he already is working on securing another round of financing next year. The initial $12 million investment "gives us a level of comfort in moving ahead and securing our business model," he said.

"This investment allows us to immediately commence efforts to initiate Phase I/II trials for our lead compound, and is a strong indication of MPM's belief in our ability to rapidly develop therapies for HIV and viral hepatitis, where there are tremendous unmet medical needs," Lucidi said in a statement last week when the financing was disclosed. "Our compounds have the potential to expand and improve the currently limited options that are available today."

Ansbert Gadicke, managing director of MPM Asset Management and general partner at BB Bioventures, said the firm's investment in Novirio is "one of the largest startup financings to date in the biopharmaceutical field, signifying our support of the company's management and strategy and its ability to become a leader in the antiviral field." *