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Axaron Moving from Gene Expression to Focus On Stroke Research and Path to Drug Discovery

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Axaron Bioscience of Heidelberg, Germany, is morphing from a gene expression service provider into a drug discovery company, and is focusing its efforts on neural regeneration.

While the company — started as a joint venture between Lynx Therapeutics and BASF in 1997 — currently still provides gene expression analysis services using its Axaminer and iGentifier technologies, it is placing increasing emphasis on developing drugs to treat neurogenerative disorders, initially stroke.

Three weeks ago, the company won a grant for stroke-related research in the second round of funding from the National Genome Research Network (NGFN), a German government-funded program for functional genomics-driven research into disease. The company told BioArray News that it has not received a formal notification of the funding.

Starting late in the third quarter, the company is planning to enroll patients into its first Phase II clinical trial, for a compound that it has developed to help with recovery from stroke. The compound has already been marketed for a separate indication, but the company is not disclosing what that indication is.

Under the NGFN grant, Axaron will provide cell-type-specific gene-expression services to a network of academic stroke researchers, using its Axaminer technology.

The consortium is coordinated by Peter Seeburg, a professor of molecular biology at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, and associate coordinator Armin Schneider, a scientist in Axaron’s molecular neurology group, and will focus on the genomic mechanisms underlying recovery from stroke. It includes scientists from the University of Heidelberg, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, and the Charité clinics in Berlin.

The Axaminer technology involves four steps: Labeling of individual cell types, automated isolation of the labeled cells by laser microdissection, amplification of RNA, and transcription profiling using a variety of platforms. It enables researchers, for example, to study gene expression in single neuronal cell types in the brain. “This is something that conventional, non-discriminating expression profiling would have real problems with,” said Corina Cosma, Axaron’s manager for business development.

For the NGFN consortium “Genomic mechanisms of functional recovery in stroke,” Axaron will participate in several subprojects that will focus on mechanisms of functional reorganization by neuron-inherent plasticity and in parallel on the mechanisms of body-endogenous cells such as adult neural stem cells and brain-invading bone marrow stem cells.

For example, the Axaminer technology will be applied to examine gene expression patterns in adult neural stem cells of rats at different time points after onset of cerebral ischemia, with the goal of analyzing the transcriptional signature of activated adult neural stem cells. In a different project, the company will analyze gene expression of microglial cells, macrophages, and monocytes that travel to the brain after a stroke has happened, Here the goal is to establish a link between inflammation, angiogenesis, and neurogenesis after stroke.

Services for the consortium, while separate from Axaron’s own research, complement the company’s efforts in the field of neural regeneration and neuroprotection. “It’s like our daily bread,” said Cosma.

In terms of revenues from service work, the company declined to be specific. “We think that the service gives us a significant [financial] contribution,” said Cosma.

Axaron also still provides Axaminer services to other researchers, not only for CNS-related projects. In March, it announced a collaboration with the German Resource Center for Genome Research (RZPD) in Berlin, under which RZPD will provide the last step of the Axaminer analysis for Axaron on its Affymetrix platform. However, Axaron also offers Axaminer services with other gene expression platforms, including Amersham’s and Agilent’s.

In terms of revenues from service work, the company declined to be specific. “We think that the service gives us a significant [financial] contribution,” said Cosma.

Axaron started out as BASF-Lynx, using Lynx’s MPSS technology for its in-house research in several areas, including CNS.

Over the years, the company — which changed its name to Axaron Bioscience in 2001 — has moved to focus on CNS research, including certain types of gene expression.

BASF is the majority shareholder (43 percent) of the company, and Lynx is a minority shareholder with a 41 percent stake.

Today, the company, which is funded with €47 million ($57M) from BASF and Lynx, has 40 employees. “We [have] a good cash basis,” said Cosma. “But as we are having a clinical pipeline, and clinical trials are quite expensive,” Axaron plans to seek additional funding this year, either through a licensing partnership with a pharmaceutical company or from VC investors.

— JK

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