Richard Franco's early retirement from Glaxo Inc.lasted about three weeks.Instead of moving on to a life of golf and consulting projects, hemoved to another part of the Research Triangle Park, N.C., area as thenew president and CEO of Trimeris Inc., a development-stagecompany whose founding was based on discoveries made in the DukeUniversity laboratories of Dani Bolognesi and Thomas Matthews.Jesse Treu, chairman of Trimeris and a general partner of thecompany's founding venture capital firm, has been involved in hiringhis share of CEOs. When he heard Franco was stepping down as vicepresident and general manager of the Glaxo Inc. division, CerenexPharmaceuticals, he knew the Trimeris CEO search was going to beeasier and quicker than most."Franco combines a large-company general management experience inthe pharmaceutical field with a knowledge of biotechnology and thetypes of licensing deals that a smaller company typically gets involvedwith," Treu told BioWorld. "It's rare to find in one executive this kindof combined experience."Stopping Membrane FusionTrimeris' intention is to create a new class of therapeutic agents thatblock viral infection by preventing membrane fusion. In 1992,Bolognesi and Matthews isolated two peptides that attack the fusionproteins residing on the surface of HIV. The agents act outside the hostcell before it gets infected. The company said the extracellular, fusion-blocking approach sets it apart from most others trying to combat thedisease."I was going to retire," Franco told BioWorld. "Then this opportunitycame along. The technology is fascinating, and feasible to get to themarket. Given those two things, it was absolutely compelling."Franco said Trimeris understands the mechanisms involved in thefusion of viral membrane proteins to host cells, essential for the spreadof viral infections. The company has synthesized and analyzed the anti-viral properties of more than 500 peptides. In vitro tests showed thatsome of the peptides blocked the spread of new virus infection intopreviously uninfected cells, and blocked virus-mediated cell-to-cellfusion.The company's lead molecules are DP (Duke peptide) 107 and DP 178,small, helical peptides that address extracellular targets. The first-generation agents have allowed Trimeris to design and develop a seriesof proprietary computer algorithms that identify fusion protein aminoacid sequences with tendencies to form structures similar to the DP 107and 178 peptides.Trimeris screened protein data banks and found other sequences to fitthe model. The company said the structural motifs first identified inHIV exist across a range of viral and non-viral targets, and it hasdeveloped peptides that have both comparable structure and activity asthe lead molecules.The peptides have broad application across viral targets including,parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and multiple types ofhepatitis and herpes viruses, the company said. Trimeris is combiningits peptide knowledge with high-throughput targeted screens to identifysmall-molecule fusion inhibitors.IND Expected In 1995Franco said preliminary animal studies are being done on DP 107 and178, and the company plans to file an investigational new drugapplication in the fourth quarter of 1995. The peptides are specific forHIV. Other peptides in development also have shown specificity for aparticular virus.Max Wallace, who was president of Trimeris before Franco cameaboard on Aug. 1, is now vice president of operations. He and StevePettaway, vice president and chief scientific officer, along with theDuke researchers and Domain Associates, founded the company. Theyknew a CEO would have to be hired as the work moved forward, sinceWallace wasn't from the pharmaceutical field. Treu said progress wasahead of schedule, so the search that ended with Franco took placeearlier than expected.Bolognesi is director of the Duke University Center for AIDS Researchand head of the National Working Group for HIV VaccineDevelopment. He and Matthews also direct the National CentralImmunology Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Clinical Trials, which islocated at Duke. Bolognesi is an "active" director and companyconsultant, Franco said.Duke got an equity position in the company in exchange for grantingTrimeris an exclusive, royalty-free license to all anti-viraldevelopments coming out of the labs of Bolognesi and Matthews. n

-- Jim Shrine

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