ViroPharma Inc. attracted $7 million in initial venturecapital financing to help fund the development of drugsthat treat infections caused by ribonucleic acid (RNA)viruses.

The Collegeville, Pa. company's management teamfunded operations since its founding last December. Itsaid Tuesday that investors in the first financing roundincluded Oak Investment Partners, of Westport, Conn.;Sevin Rosen Funds, of Dallas; Technology Leaders, ofPhiladelphia; and the New York Life Insurance Co.

RNA viruses _ which cause influenza, pneumonia,measles, mumps, the common cold, various forms ofhepatitis and other diseases _ are unique in that theymust replicate RNA for their survival. Cells, bacteria andDNA viruses don't carry out that process.

ViroPharma's president and CEO, Claude Nash, saidinfluenza and hepatitis C are two of the company's initialtargets. Small molecules will be developed to block stepsin RNA replication by these viruses.

"We've cloned and expressed a number of the enzymesthat are involved in the replication of RNA from RNA,"Nash told BioWorld Today. "We've attacked theenzymes involved in that ability _ not just polymerases_ but a number of other enzymes involved in thatconversion.

"We've reduced those to practice," he said. "We've hadthose reactions."

ViroPharma has established molecular assays in the twoinitial target areas. Researchers have found a number ofsmall molecules that have activity against the enzymes,Nash said, and they are using structure design techniquesto optimize the ability of the molecules to inhibit thevirus replicating itself.

Nash most recently was vice president for infectiousdiseases and biology at Schering-Plough ResearchInstitute, a Schering-Plough Corp. subsidiary. Many ofthe 23 scientists at ViroPharma, including Nash, formerlyworked at Sterling Winthrop Research Institute or a partof the company that was taken over by Paris-based SanofiSA.

The other four people on ViroPharma's managementteam are Mark McKinlay, vice president, research anddevelopment; Marc Collett, vice president for discoveryresearch; and Johanna Griffin, executive director forpreclinical research and business development; GuyDiana, executive director for chemistry research.

"We all came together in the summer of 1994 and beganto formulate what we would do if we wanted to makenew drugs," Nash said. The five funded the start-up, OakInvestment Partners expressed an interest in developing acompany in the antiviral area, and ViroPharma wasformed.

Nash said the $7 million financing should last about twoyears. In the meantime ViroPharma is "actively looking atcorporate partnerships in the discovery area" and alsoplans to "pursue licensing of compounds for developmentin order to speed the development process."

The in-licensing strategy involves looking at anycompounds active against RNA viruses, except theretrovirus HIV. Nash said academic institutions and otherinstitutions and companies will be investigated for leadsto in-licensing candidates.

"In today's world," Nash said, "there's a tremendous needto develop a company that has a product. The investmentcommunity is not going to accept a company based onearly discovery." n

-- Jim Shrine

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.