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VASTox Signs Two Deals Totaling $1.3M for High-Content Zebrafish Screening, Chemistry

VASTox, a chemical genomics firm based in Oxford, UK, said this week that it had signed two drug-discovery collaborations worth a total of €1 million ($1.3 million) over the next 12 months.
One agreement, with Italian pharmaceutical company Rottapharm, is worth €365,000 and is centered around VASTox’s core technology platform, which is based on high-throughput small-molecule screening in zebrafish and fruit flies.
The second agreement, worth €635,000, is with an undisclosed European biotechnology company and is based on VASTox’s medicinal chemistry services.
The deals are significant for the company, which brought in $1.9 million in 2006 through agreements with 27 customers. The collaborations are also a sign that the company’s service business, which supports its internal drug-discovery efforts, could see continued growth.
According to preliminary results for its 2006/2007 fiscal year, ended Jan. 31, revenues in the services business more than doubled to $1.9 million from $700,000 in the prior-year period. Although the firm has a hybrid business model that includes in-house drug discovery, nearly all of the company’s revenues derive from the services business.
“Early indications for the next financial year are that the chemical genomics services business will continue to see similar rates of growth,” the company said in a statement this week.
A VASTox spokesman told CBA News that the two new agreements are lengthier than those the company has signed in the past, which is a significant step for the firm. “We did pilot projects with both companies and I think the success we had in those has led us to develop these into longer-term screening and medicinal-chem collaborations,” he said.
“These are representative of the sorts of deals we’ll want to do more of in the future,” he added.
He declined to provide further details on the terms of the agreements.
VASTox (Value Adding Screening Technologies Oxford) was formed in 2003 and began trading on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM listing the following year. The 70-person company has in-house drug-discovery programs in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, multi-drug resistant infection, and osteoarthritis.
While the company offers a range of drug-discovery services, including medicinal chemistry and carbohydrate chemistry, the centerpiece of its technology portfolio is its “Vivo” zebrafish-based screening platform, which enables high-volume, high-content screening of small molecule drug candidates to provide results that the company claims is highly predictive of efficacy and toxicity in humans.
“Zebrafish is a very good model for this type of work,” the spokesman said. “It’s got a skeleton, it’s got all the major organs in the body. It also benefits from the fact that it’s got a very rapid growth time. From conception, it’s fully grown within five days, so that lends itself very well to the ability to use it in this sort of high-throughput type of work.” 
Small-animal screening has a number of benefits over cell-based screens, he said.

“We’re getting predictive in vivo data at the very early stages of the drug discovery process, whereas conventionally you’ll do your cell-based work and then identify your clinical candidates and then put them into clinical trials.”

“We’re getting predictive in vivo data at the very early stages of the drug-discovery process, whereas conventionally you’ll do your cell-based work and then identify your clinical candidates and then put them into clinical trials,” he said. “So that obviously gives us an advantage because we’re able to assess potential drug candidates at a very early stage for potential side effects and how they may interact with the desired targets. We’ll see if there are any secondary indications as well.”
The company’s Vivo platform includes a spectrum of assays for acute toxicity, cardiotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, myelotoxicity, and genotoxicity. The screens range from vivo-Acute Lite, a high-throughput assay for screening hundreds to thousands of compounds, which the company recommends for compound selection, to more specific high-content assays that are better suited for screening tens to hundreds of molecules in later stages of drug discovery.
VASTox is one of several players in the small-animal screening market. Companies like Phylonix, Zygogen, and DanioLabs have all recognized that zebrafish offer many of the advantages of cells because they are small, transparent, easy to propagate, and enable researchers to study how compounds affect a complete biological system that is similar in many ways to mammalian physiology.
But the spokesman said that VASTox doesn’t view these companies as competitors. “We don’t really view ourselves as having any because we’ve got such a unique platform in both chemistry and biology,” he said. “Primarily we are a drug-discovery business, and that’s where our long-term value is. … We wouldn’t class ourselves as being in competition because we don’t view ourselves as being a service business.”

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