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GeneProt Joins the Drug Discovery Train as it Reinvents Itself with Target, Biomarker Focus

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Since the hay day for proteomics technology start-ups ended, companies built on the promise that the technology would soon deliver new drug targets and therapeutics are struggling to either survive, or to reinvent themselves.

GeneProt, after cutting its staff in half a year ago, has been busy trying to prove to companies that its approach — analyzing large amounts of pooled patient samples to find proteins that are differentially expressed and have interesting biological activity — can generate marketable drugs, biomarkers, or targets (see PM 4-14-03).

“I[‘d] like to move GeneProt from a technology platform to a product company,” said the company’s CEO Bertrand Damour. “I know it’s a buzzword, but this is what we are doing.”

But time is running out for GeneProt. After burning through $43 million in 2002, $26 million last year, and an expected $14 million this year, and signing only one collaboration since its deal with Novartis in 2000, the company needs to refinance by 2005, Damour said. “In order to do that, we need strong scientific results coming out of GeneProt,” he said.

In its drive to get such results, the company has been focusing on a number of internal projects. It recently finished a study that compared serum samples from women in early and late pregnancy, and is currently testing 15 proteins — among them growth factors and proteins modulating the immune system — in in vivo assays for biological activity.

GeneProt has also now collected enough plasma and serum samples for a multiple sclerosis study, which it expects to finish at the end of this year, and sufficient CSF samples for an Alzheimer’s disease study, also to be completed later this year.

Last year, after the initial staff cuts, the company also hired a handful of people for its chemical synthesis department in order to churn out more synthesized proteins that the company could test for biological activity.

GeneProt sends its proteins to be tested at various outside locations, and Novartis has made available an undisclosed platform for testing proteins from GeneProt at no cost, Damour said. Besides the proteins resulting from the pregnancy study, the company is currently testing around 50 proteins that came out of its coronary artery disease study for Novartis and a study of the central nervous system in cell-based and in vivo assays.

Once GeneProt has found a protein with promising biological activity, the company hopes to find partners “to help us accelerate the development towards clinical development for all those proteins,” Damour said. The goal is to have at least one product in phase I clinical trials by early 2006, he added.

To keep it afloat in the meantime, GeneProt renegotiated the research contract it signed with Novartis in 2000, under which it was planning to conduct three proteomics studies in three disease areas — only one of which it has completed so far. Under the new contract, which will provide revenues until early next year, GeneProt will receive revenues that are “much more regular,” with quarterly payments based on “clear deliverables,” Damour said.

The second study for Novartis, in an undisclosed disease area, is to be finished by mid-year, and will take less time and use less clinical material than the first one — half a liter, instead of 2.5 liters. By upgrading GeneProt’s fleet of Bruker Daltonics ion traps and changing its bioinformatics platform to make it more flexible and reliable, “we were able to improve the process drastically,” Damour asserted.

Instead of a third study, GeneProt will now conduct a number of smaller studies for Novartis, including protein-protein interactions and proteomics profiles in response to drug treatment, which it calls “pharmacoproteomics” studies.

To attract more partners, GeneProt now also offers smaller collaborative studies like these to others, Damour said. However, it has only signed one deal so far, with H. Lundbeck in Denmark. Under the agreement, GeneProt will analyze plasma samples from a rodent model of schizophrenia to find biomarkers, according to Peter Høngaard Anderson, head of research at Lundbeck. “Their technology was really good at addressing the needs that we had,” he said. Neither party would reveal financial details of the deal.

Damour, at least, is convinced GeneProt’s days are not over yet. “One of the objectives of the company for this year is to do more deals, and I think we are moving ahead in the right direction,” he said.

—JK

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