LONDON - Gene profiling specialist ExonHit Therapeutics SA, of Paris, has signed a joint research program with Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Inc. (RPR) to identify genes implicated in head and neck cancers. The partners expect to identify new tumor suppressor genes, either as drug targets or for gene therapy, during the 33-month collaboration.

This is the first deal for ExonHit, which was set up in November 1997 by three managers from Collegeville, Pa.-based RPR's research and development division. RPR, a subsidiary of Rhone-Poulenc SA, will make an undisclosed up-front payment and fund the research. It also has an option to purchase 5 percent of ExonHit. In return, RPR will acquire exclusive worldwide rights for two genes or coding sequences that play a significant role in head and neck cancers.

Bruno Tocqué, CEO of ExonHit, told BioWorld International that the program was expected to uncover around 100 relevant genes or gene sequences. “The aim is to try and choose the two most important genes for further validation by RPR,“ he said. “Other genes will remain the property of ExonHit.“

ExonHit is built around a qualitative gene screening profiling capability called DATAS (Differential Analysis of Transcripts with Alternative Splicing). During splicing, a gene's messenger RNA undergoes structural changes which are subsequently translated into functional proteins. DATAS is able to identify genes that code abnormal proteins as a result of insertions or suppressions during splicing.

“Everything identified in this way will have an effect on disease pathology,“ said Laurent Bracco, ExonHit's VP of research.

All tumor-suppressor genes that have been described so far are affected by changes in their splicing. “DATAS offers a high probability of identifying new tumor suppressor genes, as well as genes involved in the progression of the disease,“ he said.

ExonHit was set up with US$3 million from the venture capital companies CDC Innovation and Sofinova Partners, of France, and Oxford Biosciences Partners, of the U.S. The company has also received French government and European Union grants of over $1 million. Tocqué said he expects the company to sign a second industrial partner by the end of this year, and to raise more money by the middle of 1999.

“We are now looking to build up our [intellectual property rights] portfolio, and to build up the scientific advisory board,“ Tocqué said. The board is chaired by Pierre Chambon, director of the Institut de Genetique et de Biologie Moleculaire et Cellulare, in Strasbourg, France. *