Idun Pharmaceuticals Inc. has licensed from the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology several genes involved in cell death, aswell as assay systems to cells for cell death and to screencompounds which prevent or promote cell death. The La Jolla,Calif., start-up announced the agreement on Thursday.

The license covers these genes: ced-3, which produces anenzyme that causes cell death; ced-9, which Idun said appearsto control the ced-3 gene by negative regulation and preventcells from dying; and rpr, which controls cell death in thedevelopment of the fruit fly. The license also covers humanhomologues of the three genes; the human homologue of ced-9is the proto-oncogene Bc1-2, which is overexpressed inlymphoma.

"In order to function properly, the body must tightly regulatethe number of cells in each of its organs and tissues," Idunexplained. "When this control is lost, the result can be either anabnormal increase in cell number, as in cancer, or an abnormalloss of cells, such as in degenerative diseases or as a result oftissue damage caused by heart attack, injury or inflammation."

Noting that research has historically focused on the mechanismof cell proliferation, Idun said scientists have recentlydiscovered that "virtually all cells can specifically regulate theirrate of death through the action of specific genes that controlthe cell death process."

M.I.T. researcher Robert Horvitz discovered ced-3 and ced-9and found three genes in humans that are homologues of ced-3and are believed to turn on cell death pathways.

Horvitz is a co-founders of Idun along with Stan Korsmeyer ofWashington University, Martin Raff of the University ofLondon, Lawrence Fritz, formerly vice president of R&D atAthena Neurosciences Inc., and venture capitalists LawrenceBock and Joel Martin of Avalon Ventures. Bock, general partnerat Avalon, is the acting chief executive officer at Idun. Fritz --who is now vice president of R&D at Idun -- and AvalonVentures co-founded Athena Neurosciences.

Idun was formed in 1993 to develop small-molecule drugs thatregulate the genes involved in cell death and thereby treatsuch diseases as cancer, inflammation and degenerativediseases. Idun (pronounced Eden) is named after a Celticgoddess who gave apples to other gods to keep them immortal.Joel Martin said the analogy of the goddess is used becauseIdun's drugs are intended to keep cells from initiating theirown death.

Martin said Idun is finalizing licensing deals for about 11different patents, six of which are from M.I.T. In addition toobtaining an exclusive license to the cell death genes, Idun alsolicensed assays developed by M.I.T. researcher Herman Stellerthat allow one to screen for cells that are dead or dying anddetermine if drugs are killing cells or keeping them alive.Martin noted that the company has concluded its first round offinancing and is ready to open a laboratory.

-- Brenda Sandburg News Editor

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