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FEATURE: In Search for Cures, Quark Seeks to Eliminate Research Bottleneck

NESS ZIONA, Israel, Sept 11 – Genomic research often amounts to looking for a needle in a haystack as researchers plow through vast amounts of data searching for clues that will implicate a gene’s or a protein’s role in disease.

But at Quark Biotech researchers say they have found a way to more quickly hone in on the cause of disease by using a technique that allows them to narrow the scope of the search.

“By looking systematically at all the genes involved in a disease or the progression of a disease in a high throughput manner we can zoom in quickly,” said Daniel Zurr, CEO of Quark Biotech, a Cleveland-based company that conducts most of its research in Israel.

The company is able to do this by first selecting particular diseases of interest. Then, Quark’s researchers deploy their own brand of oligonucleotide-based DNA and protein chips to start looking at the progression of the disease in human tissue cultures while simultaneously applying their own methodology for identifying and suppressing proteins and genes involved in the disease.

From there, Quark sets about developing transgenic mice both with and without the gene or the protein thought to be implicated in the disease. Quark’s scientists also probe the cells before, during, and after the disease has struck, in order to determine the role genes and proteins play in the progression of an illness. Upon comparing the affected and unaffected mice, Zurr said Quark can validate which genes and proteins are involved in the various phases of the disease.

Take, for instance, Quark’s research on stroke.

“We take a mouse, subject it to stroke, take the neurons from the brain one minute before the stroke, during the stroke, and after the stroke,” Zurr explained. “Later we extract all the RNA and proteins and we get a library of everything that happened. Then we validate it in vivo. We do it in a very systematic way.” 

So far, Quark’s methodology has generated a lot of interest both from big name entrepreneurs as well as leading pharmaceutical companies. Larry Ellison, Oracle’s high-profile CEO, is chairman of Quark’s board and owns about 65 percent of the company. To date, Zurr said that Quark had raised tens of millions of dollars, albeit less than $100 million.

Quark, which eventually hopes to be an independent drug developer, is currently using partnerships to generate revenues and validate its technique. So far, the company has launched some eight collaborations to study diseases from type II diabetes to liver fibrosis. Among those partnerships are deals with Mitsubishi Tokyo Pharmaceuticals, Sankyo, Fugisawa Pharmaceutical, Shionogi and Taisho Pharmaceutical all of Japan. Fugisawa and Taisho have also made equity investments in Quark.

Zurr said that by partnering with Japanese companies, Quark has been able to secure the marketing rights to sell treatments that result from the deals in the large North American and European markets, while the Japanese companies generally take the exclusive rights to the Far East.

And, by creating the collaborations, Zurr noted that his company of more than 200 scientists has been able to greatly increase the number of diseases it can research.

“Our partners have 400 scientists working with our 215 scientists – that’s more than 600 scientists working on eight diseases,” said Zurr, adding that he expects the company's first treatment, which will be for cancer, to enter clinical trials next year.

In addition to the partnerships with the Japanese companies, Quark also has a deal with Invitrogen for the commercialization of Quark’s mammalian recombinant protein expression system. In May, Quark announced a multi-year research agreement with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to study a number of difficult-to-treat diseases.

More good news is also percolating in the pipeline. Quark expects to have the results soon of a large clinical study on the role of a particular gene in breast cancer. If the study pans out as Quark anticipates, then Applied Biosystems has agreed to develop and commercialize the results in the form of a breast cancer diagnostic.

And, to top it off, Zurr also hinted that the ink is currently drying on an agreement with one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, although he declined to offer any details. A new arrangement with a Japanese company is also in the works.

The next big move to follow will likely be the company’s initial public offering, which Zurr hopes will take place in the first half of 2002. Given the company’s currently strong position, however, Zurr said he is ready to wait until the market conditions allow for a relatively large offering.

“We would want to raise no less than $100 million and we’re willing to wait for the right time,” Zurr said. 

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