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Activx Snags New CEO to Head Up Drug Discovery Push, Seeks VC and Pharma Deals


Going the way of competitors Cellzome and Myriad Proteomics before it, Activx Biosciences, of La Jolla, Calif., has hired a new CEO to oversee its efforts to transform from a technology provider into a drug discovery company (see PM 9-23-02, 7-4-03). The new recruit, James Schoeneck, comes from Prometheus Laboratories, a therapeutics and diagnostics company where he was president and CEO. Schoeneck said he will bring more business sense — as well as insight into the drug marketing and acceptance process — to a company that needs to figure out how it is going to reinvent itself.

“One aspect [of my appointment] is to get the company thinking more about products than projects,” Schoeneck told ProteoMonitor. That means thinking past even the application of Activx’ technology to drug development, all the way to the day when that drug might actually hit the market. “I think ultimately you’ve got to provide innovative ways to treat patients but also ones where the health care systems will be willing at that point to reimburse,” Schoeneck said. “I think some biotech companies start down paths without having thought through quite as many of these issues as they might have.”

The core technology that Activx hopes to apply to drug discovery, parts of which are licensed from the Scripps Research Institute, consists of fluorescent chemical affinity probes that bind to the active sites of a specific class of proteins. Researchers can separate and identify each protein that has a probe bound to it, because the binding pattern changes when a drug that competes with a probe is present. Applications to drug discovery involve the same basic chemical pulldown of binding proteins that other chemoproteomic strategies use, but a major difference between this and strategies used by Cellzome and the recently renamed Prolexys Pharmaceutical (formerly Myriad Proteomics, see PM 9-26-03) is Activx’ technology’s ability to look at small samples of proteins in their active state, according to Schoeneck. “It’s [looking at] the active states, being able to interrogate the entire protein family at once, to pick up the interactions in these minute measurements of activity” that makes Activx different, he said.

The company has been focusing on probes for kinases and proteases, with the kinase platform having been essentially complete by mid-2003, Schoeneck said.

Schoeneck also said that while the company will continue to emphasize drug discovery, development, and validation collaborations like its recently announced deal with Pfizer (see PM 7-11-03), a major part of the process of becoming a drug discovery company will be the establishment of in-house candidate selection and pre-clinical programs.

The company will initially focus its in-house efforts on four conditions: metabolic diseases, immunology, oncology, and neurology — with immunology taking center stage at first. “The immunology program is moving forward to where I would hope we would have something ready to go in the next 12 to 18 months,” Schoeneck said.

As for collaborations, Activx is particularly looking for collaborations with pharma and biotech companies that have “advanced programs in the kinase and protease area.” Schoeneck said that with the completion of the kinase platform, “the interest in those tools and using them has gone up tremendously, so I think you’ll see some good things going forward with us on the partnership side [of the business]… in the next few months — it could be by the end of the year — with pharma and biotech.”

Activx will not be relying only on collaborations for near-term funding, however. Schoeneck said that Activx is actively seeking further NIH and venture capital funding in the next 12 months, with “the great bulk of it coming from the venture side.”

Activx had raised $26 million in venture capital funding by the beginning of this year, and in July it won a $1.1 million SBIR Phase II grant to build a toxicity database (see PM 1-13-03, 7-4-03).

With the move to more long-term projects in drug discovery, there will be more pressure for the company to raise funds. Although Schoeneck would not reveal the company’s current cash burn rate, he noted that he definitely expected it to rise in the next year. “With the company in transition, it certainly affects the cash burn rates as well. As we get closer to drugs going into human testing, both the value of the company goes up but also the amount of capital that’s needed to reach those steps goes up,” he said.



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