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Hybrigenics Acquires Semaia, in Bid to Expand Signal Transduction Expertise

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In a bid to advance from yeast-two-hybrid-based target provider to lead generator, Hybrigenics of Paris said last week that it had acquired ailing cancer signal transduction company Semaia Pharmaceuticals in an all-stock deal.

According to Hybrigenics CEO Donny Strosberg, Semaia brings “excellent intellectual property” to the table, including targets and small molecule hits in the area of cancer-related signal transduction pathways, in particular one that relates to colon cancer. In addition, the Dutch company has expertise in a number of technologies that complement Hybrigenics’ own yeast two-hybrid-based platform, such as mouse knock-out, siRNA in mice, molecular genetics in mice and zebrafish, differential display, chemical libraries, and electron microscopy. “It’s basically a tremendous treasure trove,” Strosberg said.

While he did not disclose financial details of the deal, Strosberg said it exceeded $1 million in shares. But the potential value to Hybrigenics is even greater. “We can now go from gene to small molecule or drug, which we certainly were not able to do until then,” Strosberg said, and the two companies will use each other’s technologies to validate their respective targets. A collaboration with Semaia’s Dortmund, Germany, site had already been planned, but by acquiring the company, “I don’t have to worry if they are going to be supported next year,” and the patent situation is easier, Strosberg said.

Hybrigenics’ plan is to optimize several of Semaia’s hits in order to obtain lead compounds for pre-clinical development. Also, the company wants to offer some of Semaia’s technologies to potential pharmaceutical partners.

Semaia was founded in the fall of 2000 by scientists with expertise in cell signaling at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and at the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund. With close to €6 million in funding — much of it from Dutch venture capital company Life Sciences Partners — the company built up a molecular genetics and biology facility in Utrecht, and a chemistry and protein crystallography site in Dortmund. However, the company had “no real business development to speak of,” Strosberg said, and with funding running short and a chemistry facility that was “not probably the appropriate size for the rest of the company,” the German facility was shut down earlier this year, and an expansion of the Dutch site had to be halted.

Currently, Semaia has about a dozen employees, which Hybrigenics will probably cut down to six, he said. But Semaia will keep its site at the University of Utrecht Medical Center. It works in close collaboration with about 50 academic scientists, both at the Medical Center and the Hubrecht Laboratory, a research institute of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, according to John De Konig, a research scientist at Semaia.

Strosberg said he saw the company as a good fit, not only because his mother tongue is Dutch, but also because Semaia complements Hybrigenics’ efforts and technologies. In addition, they shared a common investor, Life Sciences Partners.

Hybrigenics has raised €47 million in venture capital so far, of which about €24 million remains. Until now, the company has been focusing on finding new drug targets by building protein interaction maps, based on results from yeast two-hybrid screens and their bioinformatics analysis. Also, it has been screening for compounds against these targets, using both a yeast-based approach that employs “selected interacting domains” to modulate protein-protein interactions, and in vitro screening.

In using these technologies, the company collaborates with a large number of academic researchers — most notably the Pasteur Institute and the Curie Institute — and has strategic partnerships with six companies: Incyte, Merck, Lynx, Oxford GlycoSciences, Servier, and XTL. Its number of employees decreased to about 50 at present from 70 last summer. Without further deals, the company will be able to survive for about another three years, Strosberg said.

The company’s goal for the remainder of the year is to close a research or product-development partnership with a pharmaceutical or other large company in order to obtain some additional revenues, and several deals are under discussion, Strosberg said. It is also looking for a partner for its hepatitis C program.

Furthermore, the company hopes to “push a few more of our compounds into lead optimization,” Strosberg added, “so that by next year we can start worrying about preclinical [studies].”

— JK

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