LONDON — U.K. start-up Inpharmatica Ltd. aims to identify novel drug targets by integrating computer-modeling techniques with genomics data.

The company, spun out of University College London (UCL), builds on work by Janet Thornton in the biomolecular structure and modeling unit. It will apply modeling techniques to genome sequences in order to recognize and predict the three-dimensional structure of the proteins for which they code. Then, through analysis and classifications based on protein family relationships elucidated by Thornton and other founders of the company, Inpharmatica will determine probable functions.

"This is not a sudden new organization," CEO Ken Powell told BioWorld International. "It is based on 20 years of research at UCL by Janet Thornton's group, which has worked on predicting protein structure and function from sequence data."

The new ingredient is the vast volume of genomic data now available in both public and private databases, and the fact that very few pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies have access to the specialized bioinformatics skills needed to make sense of, and extract value from, this data.

"A lot of companies are sitting on valuable data which they are not able to handle effectively," Powell said. "We will make the data manageable and apply it to drug discovery." Powell said selection of the best target has become the critical competitive issue in drug lead discovery.

'Distant Sequence Relationships' Detected

"Inpharmatica can ease the serious bottleneck which has emerged in converting raw sequence data into high-quality information," he said. "Our technology detects extremely distant sequence relationships that are unavailable to our competitors. This allows Inpharmatica to select not only obvious targets as suggested by standard bioinformatic software, but also to identify hidden targets."

Inpharmatica will work in partnership with the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, based in London, which was set up to perform drug discovery research for commercial clients. "The institute will be able to validate targets thrown up by Inpharmatica, and could take them into development," said Powell, who is deputy director of the Wolfson Institute and former head of biology at the Wellcome Foundation Ltd.

Thornton, who retains her academic post, will be chief scientist of Inpharmatica.

Inpharmatica has raised an initial £1 million (US$1.68 million) of venture funding from Unibio Ltd., also based in London. Powell said it will be necessary to raise more money before the end of 1998. The company will be looking to raise £2 million to £3 million, which will keep it operating until it can generate sufficient funds from deals. Discussions are already taking place with potential customers.

UCL has granted rights to Inpharmatica for the commercial exploitation of software packages developed by Thornton and her group.

Early income will come from genome analysis and target discovery services. Lead molecules will be developed in partnership with clients, with each taking a share of the revenue when the product is further partnered through a pharmaceutical company.

"Our research shows that very few companies are self-sufficient in bioinformatics," Powell said. "We will offer it as a service. We have recruited a 12-strong team and will double this in the next year." He said finding bioinformatics experts is difficult, but those recruited to Inpharmatica "are attracted by the chance to join a world-leading group." *