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Galenea Enters the RNAi Drugs Arena With Technology from MIT Researcher

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When MIT researcher Jianzhu Chen spoke with RNAi News late last year about his work on an siRNA-based treatment for the influenza virus, he mentioned that he expected to find a commercial partner to help him continue development (see RNAi News, 10/31/2003).

As it turns out, he decided that developing the product at his own company made better sense, and Chen is now one of the co-founders of Galenea.

Despite interest from potential collaborators, Chen said that forming Galenea — which is named after famed Greek physician Galen — proved to be “a very good alternative” in part because of funding commitments the Cambridge, Mass.-based startup was able to secure because of the credibility lent by another co-founder, Susumu Tonegawa. Tonegawa is the director of MIT’s Picower Center for Learning and Memory, and the winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1987 for his discovery of the genetic principle for the generation of antibody diversity.

Galenea’s other co-founders include Rockefeller University’s Maria Karayiorgou and MIT’s David Gerber, Chen said.

According to the official description on the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s website, the company, which was incorporated in July 2003, is officially working on “siRNA-based, inhaled, respiratory medicines for the treatment of respiratory disease.”

In March 2003, Chen and his colleagues published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that they had developed siRNAs that target conserved regions of influenza virus genes and could inhibit virus production in cell lines and embryonated chicken eggs. The siRNAs, specific either for nucleocapsid or a component of the RNA transcriptase, also knocked down targeted mRNA, as well as virion RNA and its complementary RNA.

In June this year, Chen and colleagues published in PNAS data from experiments demonstrating that siRNAs administered either before or after infection could reduce influenza virus production in the lungs of infected animals. This effect was seen when the siRNAs were delivered either intravenously or intranasally.

It is this research that forms the basis for Galenea’s RNAi activities. (The company is also developing calcineuron-related therapeutics for cognitive disorders — a focus that stems from the research interests of Tonegawa, Karayiorgou, and Gerber, but which is unrelated to the company’s RNAi activities.)

Chen said that preliminary RNAi work is already underway at Galenea’s current headquarters at 790 Memorial Drive — the former home of another RNAi therapeutics company, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. However, operations are expected to ramp up significantly when Galenea consummates a collaboration with an undisclosed big pharmaceutical firm to develop non-RNAi drugs for central nervous system disorders.

John Oyler, the interim CEO of Galenea, told RNAi News that this collaboration, which is expected to close within the next two months, includes a significant amount of funding for the company. “A good portion” of this cash, he noted, is “unconstrained” and can be spent “on our own in the siRNA field.

“We’ll have a substantial chunk of money that we can invest trying to push things forward in this area,” he added.

Oyler, who joined Galenea in February, declined to comment on the size of the funding his company will receive, but Chen noted that it is likely to be in “the tens of millions.”

With the cash infusion, Galenea is planning on securing bigger facilities in Cambridge, probably sometime early next year, Chen said. “We are going to move to a more permanent place … that we’ve found, but the final lease has not been signed,” he said. He would not say where the company’s new home will be located, but said it will be “walking distance” from MIT.

“We have already looked at the space [and] we really like it,” he added. “We basically have the entire floor to ourselves.”

The company is also planning on using the money from the financing to fill out its staff. Currently, Galenea has seven full-time and two part-time employees, most of whom are scientists, Chen said, adding that the company is on the lookout for scientists and has hired executive search firm Korn/Ferry to find people to assume high-level management positions such as chief scientific officer.

“We are trying to hire profusely, especially in the siRNA area,” Oyler said. “We’re looking for science people,” primarily.

And Galenea has not discounted the possibility of collaborating in the RNAi sector. “In siRNA-based medicine, the bottleneck is delivery,” Chen said. “So, we are developing our own delivery technologies, but we are [also] actively talking to other companies” about collaborating on delivery approaches.

“We have actively been discussing [potential deals] with quite a few companies, as well as people from academia who [have] expertise and … technologies that can deliver nucleic acids,” he said. “No specific agreement has been signed, but these are substantial discussions,” he added, declining to name any of the parties involved in the talks.

— DM