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On Heels of Deals with Big Pharma, Serenex Raises $15M for Automation

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Flush with $15 million in new venture capital funding, Serenex said last week that it plans to hire an additional 30 scientists within a year and embark on a program to automate its platform for screening purine-binding proteins for interactions with small molecule lead compounds. The company has also signed early-stage partnerships with Pharmacia and Pfizer and is in negotiations with two “recently-merged” companies, Robert Dishman, Serenex’s CEO, told ProteoMonitor.

“This round of funding is going to increase our total automation infrastructure as well as pay for internal development of drug candidates,” Dishman said. “Basically we’re developing modular systems where each system has a capacity of [screening] about 3,000 compounds versus several thousand potential targets a day. The first thing we need to finish is the automation of that process.”

Serenex’s technology is built around the research of co-founder Timothy Haystead, a professor of pharmacology at Duke University who developed techniques for selecting out purine-binding proteins from cell lysates using affinity columns loaded with ATP. To screen these potential targets for interactions with small molecule lead compounds, Haystead devised a technique for determining whether a small molecule displaces one or more of the proteins bound to the affinity column, and identifying those potential targets by mass spectrometry.

In order to reach the desired throughput, the company hopes to automate this entire process, including the intermediate washing and transfer steps required to separate using 1D gels the potential drug targets displaced by the small molecules. Although Serenex’s automation strat-egy relies on 96-well plates, Dishman said the company has developed proprietary robotics because no suitable system is currently available on the market.

Serenex is also looking to automate the transfer of separated protein samples to its recently-installed Applied Biosystems MALDI-TOF/TOF mass spectrometer, Dishman said. “If someone comes up with a good system, we’ll buy it from them,” he said.

Although Dishman declined to go into the details of its collaborations with Pharmacia and Pfizer, in an interview in June he told ProteoMonitor that the company is studying three potential drug compounds for a “New York-based big pharma,” presumably Pfizer, and that Serenex has identified several “off-targets” that could be responsible for the compounds’ toxicity profiles.

With the other big pharma partner, Serenex is studying purine-binding protein targets associated with 10 potential drug candidates, he said at the time.

In addition to this work, Serenex is also pursuing a “limited” internal program to develop drugs against a target linked to rheumatoid arthritis, Dishman said. The company plans to take its candidate compounds into preclinical animal testing before seeking a pharmaceutical partner, he said, and Serenex hopes to file an investigational new drug application on a therapeutic targeting rheumatoid arthritis with the FDA in 2004.

Serenex currently has about 22 employees, and the company plans to increase its headcount to 38 by the end of the year, and to 52 by the middle of 2003, Dishman said. Of the six employees Serenex most recently hired, five are medicinal chemists and one is a biologist, he added. Within 18 months, the company plans to have increased its stable of medicinal chemists to 25, with an equal number of biologists and engineers.

– JSM

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