By Nancy Garcia
Associate Editor

A company formed to focus on neurological diseases has entered aresearch-and-development agreement for what could be the first unlimited test-tubeproduction of human neurons by SRI International.

Layton BioScience Inc. of Atherton, Calif., has raised $1 million in seed financing,said Gary Snable, president and chief executive officer, and is licensing technologiesfrom the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, including a way to turnundifferentiated human cells into living nerve cells in the test tube.

He said this cell line “will be uniform, readily available and disease-free,without the ethical issues and safety risks raised by fetal cell use.“

SRI, a contract research organization in Menlo Park, Calif., will serve as thecompany's general R&D arm on this and other central nervous system-related productsand technologies.

hNT-Neuron Cells

A line of hNT-Neuron cells should be available to sell to the scientific researchcommunity before the end of the year. Plans are also under way to develop and validate theuse of the hNT-Neuron cells in neurotoxicity testing kits.

Development of the cells for therapeutic applications is further down the road. SRIscientists will use genetic engineering techniques to enhance their value for screeningnew pharmaceuticals and studying neuron functioning.

Snable, who was previously vice president of marketing at Invitron Corp. and chiefoperating officer of Fujisawa SmithKline, said the cholinergic neurons covered by thetechnology express glutamate receptors, but not dopamine. Conceivably, he said, SRIscientists can use their ability to insert new genes to alter these cells for research.

“There are a large number of interesting human neuronal genes that could bestudies,“ Snable said.

He added that the cells will be available to corporations through non-exclusivesublicenses.

Current research is carried out in either neuroblasts, which are immature brain cells,or in neuroblastomas, cancerous cells that do not express the appropriate markers. Laytonwould also explore other technologies to address the unserved needs for treatment of suchdisorders as Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's.

The company bears the maiden name of Snable's mother, who died of Alzheimer's. “Wethought we would honor her rather than being the 38th 'neuro- something or other,' “he said.

Layton hopes to raise $3 million to $4 million from institutional investors orcorporate partners in the fall to finance operations through 1994. SRI is receiving apercentage of equity in Layton as partial payment for its services.

Such deals are “a trend we're trying to do more of,“ said SRI spokesman JimKloss. Although non-profit, the company needs to recoup more than its operating expensesfor reinvestment. SRI primarily brings in money through contract research, but is“looking for more arrangements like Layton,“ Kloss said.