By Charles Craig

Privately held Tularik Inc. raised $51.25 million from Swiss investment firm Pharma Vision 2000 A.G., swelling the South San Francisco company's coffers to nearly $114 million in less than a year to support development of small molecule drugs that regulate expression of genes linked to diseases.

Pharma Vision, of Glarus, Switzerland, participated in an October 1996 round of financing that generated $62.7 million for Tularik, which touted that investment as the single largest fund raising ever by a private biotechnology firm. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 14, 1996, p. 1.)

Based on data from the BioWorld Biotechnology State of the Industry Report 1997, the 1996 fund raising was, by far, the largest private company financing that year.

Wednesday's equity investment by Pharma Vision makes it the largest stockholder in Tularik, which was founded in 1991 and has yet to begin clinical trials with a drug candidate. Pharma Vision's $51.25 million also qualifies as the largest single financing in a private biotechnology company so far this year.

Andrew Perlman, vice president of medical research, said the company's cash position gives it the flexibility to select an opportune time to take Tularik public.

"Ultimately we view ourselves as a publicly traded company," Perlman said. In the meantime, he added, the Pharma Vision investment will provide the funds to keep Tularik's six therapeutic programs moving forward.

Tularik focuses on developing small molecule drugs that counter inappropriate gene expression linked to diseases. Its potential drug targets are transcription factors, or proteins, which regulate gene expression, as well as other proteins that deliver the signals sending transcription factors into action.

"We dissect a cell pathway as it relates to disease and use that knowledge to set up an assay system to find drug leads," Perlman said. Tularik also has developed hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds to screen for activity against the genetic targets.

Its most advanced drug discovery programs are focused on viral diseases and hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol, which leads to cardiovascular disorders.

Against viral diseases, Tularik is working with Merck & Co., of Whitehouse Station, N.J., to find drugs that block the replication cycle of HIV, hepatitis C, herpes simplex virus and cytomegalovirus. In AIDS, for example, Tularik is targeting an HIV transcription factor called TAT, or transactivator of transcription.

The company's program to find drugs that lower cholesterol levels is being funded by Sumitomo Pharmaceuticals Co. Ltd., of Osaka, Japan. The focus is on boosting expression of genes involved in clearance of cholesterol from the body.

The viral diseases and hypercholesterolemia programs have progressed to the stage where lead drug candidates are being refined for the start of preclinical trials.

Tularik also has collaborations with Taisho Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., of Tokyo, for drugs to treat autoimmune diseases and other immune system disorders, such as allergies and asthma.

The company is working with Roche Bioscience, of Palo Alto, Calif., a division of Basel, Switzerland-based Roche Holding Ltd., on inflammatory disease treatments and with Japan Tobacco Inc., of Tokyo, on obesity drugs.

Pharma Vision, Perlman said, is a major investor in Roche and is a shareholder in two other pharmaceutical firms, Glaxo Wellcome plc, of London, and Hoechst AG, of Frankfurt, Germany. *