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Atugen Finds New CEO in Latest Step Towards Goal of Developing RNAi Drugs

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The business cards have been printed and it’s all but official — Atugen has selected a new CEO. The appointment of Peter Buckel to the helm of Atugen comes a little more than two months after the Berlin-based company first announced that it had expanded its focus to include the development of siRNA-based therapeutics (see RNAi News, 2/13/2004).

Buckel previously served as CEO of Xantos Biomedicine, a Munich-based functional biology and drug discovery company, and the decision to bring him on board at Atugen was a simple one, according to Andre Lochter, Atugen’s director of business development. Lochter told RNAi News on the sidelines of the Strategic Research Institute’s siRNA in Drug Discovery and Development conference in San Diego this week that Buckel is well-known in the German biotech arena and a strong match for his new company.

Technically, the process of hiring Buckel is still ongoing, Lochter said, noting that certain paperwork remains in the hands of lawyers and has yet to be signed. But the deal is as good as done and is expected to become legal in the next week or two, he added.

The appointment of a new CEO is the latest in a series of steps Atugen has taken recently to grow into a full-fledged RNAi drug maker. The company, which was spun off from Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals (now Sirna Therapeutics) in 1998 as a contract research services provider, brought on Lochter late last year in order to “help Atugen to promote its expanded service and partnering offerings in therapeutic RNAi, target validation, compound screening, cell-based assays, and animal models,” as COO and CFO Thomas Christely put it in a statement released at the time.

Then, in quick succession, Atugen announced that it had thrown its hat into the RNAi therapeutics ring and that it had raised €5 million ($5.9 million) in its third round of financing. Aside from giving the company enough cash to operate through the end of next year, the financing had the added benefit of cutting Sirna’s ownership in Atugen to less than 10 percent, Lochter said. It also eliminated from Atugen’s board of directors Sirna senior vice president and COO Nassim Usman, he added.

“The goal is to be an independent siRNA company,” Lochter said. Since Sirna has the same goal, Atugen’s desire to free itself from the influence of a rival is obvious, he noted.

With the cash in its pocket, Atugen is working to advance its in-house research efforts in oncology. Currently, the company is optimizing drug candidate leads in vitro for a number of prostate cancer targets already identified, Lochter said. He declined to comment specifically on the targets and preclinical drug candidates the company is evaluating.

Lochter also declined to provide timeframes for when Atugen expects to have selected a lead siRNA candidate or when it will file an investigational new drug application to begin human studies. “If we have a lead [that] we can trust works reliably” in vivo, such projections could be made, Lochter said. But “we don’t know how long the lead optimization process takes” — it could be “three months [or] it could be three years.”

Despite billing itself as oncology-focused, Lochter stressed that Atugen does not intend to limit itself to that disease area. He said that the company’s siRNA technology is extremely “flexible,” as evidenced by Atugen’s research with glucose tolerance in mouse models and its ongoing collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, in the area of wound healing.

As such, Atugen would readily consider alliance opportunities with biopharmaceutical firms in any number of disease areas, Lochter said. He cited Eli Lilly as a possibility in the diabetes field, and noted that the company is considering partnering out its wound-healing program. He added that Atugen is currently talking with some of the major pharmaceutical players to gauge their interest in collaborations.

Lochter said, however, that big pharma appears to remain skeptical about the notion of RNAi as a therapeutic modality, and that he believes it will take solid clinical data supporting the use of RNAi-based drugs in humans to get the industry to genuinely embrace the technology.

In the meantime, there will be a handful of pharmaceutical companies willing to at least test the waters, if not jump right in, as Merck and Lilly have already done with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Sirna, respectively. Lochter hopes that Atugen’s ongoing contract research relationships with firms such as Schering will help his company strike an alliance with one of them.

As all this is going on, Atugen is looking to close another round of financing, which Lochter said would give the company the ability to expand its pipeline, as well as its staff. The company currently has about 40 employees, and Lochter said that it needs “short-term hirings” in the areas such as pharmacology and clinical development.

He said that his “realistic expectation” for this next round is that it would be worth up to €10 million ($11.9 million) and that it would conclude before the end of the year, although nothing is definite. Lochter had no comment on whether this next round of financing would likely include new and/or existing investors.

Since it first announced that it would be pursuing RNAi therapeutics, Atugen has said little about its contract research services projects. Lochter stressed to RNAi News that Atugen remains committed to these operations and its customers, but said that he looks at the business as a separate unit of Atugen.

Lochter said that Atugen has toyed with the idea of officially dividing the company’s contract research and therapeutics operations while keeping them under the same corporate umbrella, a move he said would not only help with branding the two businesses, but also eliminate any perception of a conflict of interest should Atugen be working in the same indications as any of its customers.

He said that he even came up with a name for the would-be business unit (he wouldn’t disclose it to RNAi News, even off the record), but in the end believes that setting up an operating unit would not be worth the effort involved — at least not just yet.

“At this point in time, it’s fine as it is,” he said.

— DM

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