By Mary Welch

Cytovia Inc., which was spun off from CoCensys Inc. earlier this year, raised $10 million from four venture capital investment funds and will use the money to develop and commercialize its drug discovery screening technology.

At the time of the spinoff CoCensys, of Irvine, Calif., made short-term loans to the fledgling company to cover operations until Cytovia could obtain its own funding. Obviously, the faith was well founded.

The four venture capital groups are: Domain Associates, of Princeton, N.J.; Crosspoint Venture Partners, of Irvine, Calif.; Sanderling Ventures, of Menlo Park., Calif. and Forrest, Binkley & Brown, of Newport Beach, Calif.

Irvine-based Cytovia's new technology, named CytoCasp, uses living cells to screen experimental compounds for possible applications as drugs that regulate the intracellular activity of proteases. Proteases are a class of enzymes found in numerous diseases, including cancer, inflammation, viral and bacterial infections and degenerative diseases.

Cytovia's work focuses now on caspases, which are linked to the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. When molecular mechanisms that trigger programmed cell death malfunction, cells can multiply unchecked, resulting in cancer, or die inappropriately, causing such disorders as neurodegenerative diseases.

Cytovia's drug screening technology is designed to test drugs to see if they can either start or stop the caspase cascade in living cells from an organ system or cancerous tumor.

Screening Could Predict Drug Success

Eckard Weber, president and CEO, said the company is focusing on a new anticancer drug and an inhibitor for degenerative diseases. Another possible benefit, he said, is that the screening technology may be helpful in figuring out which anticancer drugs will be the successful in individual cancer patients.

Weber said the firm soon will seek partnerships with pharmaceutical companies for the screening technology.

When Cytovia was formed, Weber was head of research and drug discovery for CoCensys, which specializes in the fields of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

CoCensys did not, however, sever ties with Cytovia. In return for the money lent to the start-up, CoCensys received an equity stake of less than 15 percent and retained the right to have Cytovia screen CoCensys' neuroscience-related drugs as well as the right of first refusal to develop any compound Cytovia discovers for neuroscience-related diseases.

Cytovia was formed after CoCensys decided to stick to its central focus on therapeutics for central nervous system disorders, enabling Cytovia to work on drug screening technology independently. Cytovia started with a dozen CoCensys employees who had worked on CoCensys' apoptosis program. *