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RNAi Roundup: CytRx Names Full-time CFO; Genta to Enter RNAi Arena with Salus Acquisition; Nucleonics licenses RNAi Patent Applications from Wyeth; EURIT Sets Meeting for September 2

NEW YORK, Aug. 22 (GenomeWeb News) - A year after it merged with Global Genomics, CytRx has found a permanent chief financial officer in Kirk Peacock, 35, who on Aug. 15 took the company's fiscal reins from interim-CFO and still-CEO Steve Kriegsman.   


Peacock comes to CytRx after most recently serving as CFO and vice president of operations at DigitalMed, a provider of online-based training services for healthcare providers, and just three days shy of the Los Angeles-based company's announcement that heavy R&Dinvestments -Including about $1.7 million of cash and stock payments to the University of Massachusetts Medical School for access to its RNAi technology and researchers -- had pushed its second quarter net loss up 437 percent to $5 million.


Having come aboard CytRx halfway through the third quarter, Peacock is still getting acclimated to his new environment, but having known Kriegsman for about three or four years (the two met when Peacock was CFO of enterprise software firm and Kreigsman was running a venture capital fund), he appears ready to dive in and help Kriegsman reshape the company.


"Steve can't do it alone," Peacock said.  "The exciting part is to be there from the beginning to build this new management team that is going to execute on Steve's vision."


According to Peacock, that vision includes a sharp focus on RNAi.  CytRx's strategy involves the identification of key academic collaborators and well-defined therapeutic areas.  Through its deal with UMass, CytRx is screening candidate RNAi targets for obesity and type 2 diabetes, and is sponsoring research at the school investigating the use of the technology to treat these diseases, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.


As far as executing this business plan, CytRx had about $5.9 million in cash and investments as of June 30, which Peacock said would be sufficient to carry the company through the end of 2004, at least.  Afterwards, as CytRx moves forward with its research and begins to pay out the milestones owed to UMass that could total $13.6 million, "there'll need to be some financing."  The form that financing will take, however, is unclear.


"I think it's going to be on a deal by deal basis and depends on what's happening with the market," said Peacock.  He declined to comment on whether he is currently pursuing avenues of financing.


Genta said last week that it has signed a deal to acquire Salus Therapeutics, making it the latest in a string of biopharmaceutical companies, including such big players as Abbott and Genentech, to toss their hats into the RNAi ring.


"Genta, as it's operated up until now, had two distinct programs: one in DNA-based medicines and the second in small molecules," Genta CEO Raymond Warrell said during an Aug. 14 conference call.  By picking up Salus, in exchange for $13 million in stock up front and as much as $17 million in cash or stock for the achievement of R&D milestones, Genta has now "expand[ed] our research efforts into therapeutic applications of RNA interference."


But unlike most others in the RNAi space, Salt Lake City, Utah-based Salus uses technology involving single strands of antisense RNA that prompt the RNAi process in a cell.  Salus said that these single-stranded RNAs appear more effective than dsRNA, and are currently being tested in animal models against the gene MMP-9.


Concurrent with the announcement of the Salus deal, Warrell said that Genta has picked up a license to the Fire-Mello patents, giving the company "pretty broad freedom to operate.  We do not believe, and I think our attorneys concur, that anybody is going to have an essential blocking position on the technology as a whole."


"That will be different for specific targets...but we broadly feel that this is a very new field and that no one is in a position to dominate."


Genta, of Berkeley Heights, NJ, said it expects the acquisition to close this quarter.


In its latest step to shore up its IP position, Nucleonics said it has acquired the co-exclusive rights to two US patent applications relating to the use of its core DNA-induced RNAi technology from Wyeth.


According to Nucleonics, the patent applications are based on RNAi research conducted by two of the company's co-founders, C. Satishchandran and Catherine Pachuk, who worked for DNA vaccine developer Apollon, which was acquired by Wyeth in 1998.


Pachuk told GenomeWeb the patent applications cover expressed dsRNA, the DNA plasmids used to prompt a cell to produce the dsRNA, and a variety of viral vectors, as well as specific drug targets.  She declined to specify the patent application numbers, citing confidentiality requirements of the agreement with Wyeth.


In exchange for co-exclusive rights to the applications, Wyeth received a 5 percent stake in Nucleonics.  Additional terms of the deal were not disclosed.


Nucleonics, a roughly two-year-old start-up based in Malvern, Penn., is currently in the process of raising cash and gathering IP to support its preclinical research efforts, with the goal of getting RNAi drug candidates for Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B virus into human trials within two years.  The company is expecting to secure $20 million by year-end and is in discussions with a number of parties, including Wyeth and Benitec, over other possible IP licensing arrangements.  The company is also looking into securing the IP necessary for working in the HCV and HBV fields.




The European Union for RNA Interference Technology is holding its first conference on September 2   to bring together researchers in the field to discuss their latest work.


Expected to present at the conference in Berlin are speakers from Amgen, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the Max Delbr ck Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), the University of Århus, Ribopharma, and the European Molecule Biology Laboratory.


The event is sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology and Qiagen, and co-sponsored by Agilent and Amaxa.





Acacia Research said this week that it has appointed David Danley, a recently retired US Army Colonel, as the director of homeland security and defense programs at its CombiMatrix unit.


According to Newport Beach, Calif.-based Acacia, Danley will handle all of the company's defense related activities, including the development of products for biological and chemical weapon detection.

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