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Elitra VP stakes out sequences, screening, and antisense

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If you’re about to say a target protein isn’t druggable, better make sure Philip Youngman isn’t in earshot. “It is a meaningless statement, and a ridiculous concept,” says the new vice president of discovery biology at Elitra Pharmaceuticals. “Every compound is druggable.”

Youngman, formerly senior director of bacterial genetics at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, is putting his theory to work at Elitra, a company using genomics to develop new antimicrobial treatments that target pathogenic bacteria and fungi. It has exclusively licensed Incyte’s database of genomic sequences for a number of bacterial pathogens, as well as the sequence of a primary fungal pathogen from Celera. And now the company has charged Youngman with running that information through Elitra’s highly sensitive high-throughput screeners, a technology that he says determines more efficiently which gene products are worthy of development.

Elitra’s technology, which Youngman calls an “antisense knockdown strategy,” renders the high-throughput screening test more sensitive by using antisense molecules to interfere with the mRNA that synthesizes the target protein. The logic: with lower levels of the target present, it’s easier to screen for inhibitors that deplete the target enough to affect growth. According to Youngman, this approach “provides a more sensitive way of doing cell-based screening,” and enables researchers to pick up potential drug targets that companies with different technologies might miss.

Before Youngman joined Millennium in 1996, the 19th-century literature aficionado spent almost 20 years in academia. He headed for the private sector when he realized he could help pharmaceutical companies deal with the challenge of integrating genomics with previous techniques. “I thought my experience and research in academia would be directly relevant to that challenge. And I think I was right in thinking that,” he says.

— Alison McCook