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With siRNA Delivery Tech, Startup Traversa Eyes RNAi Reagent, Screening, Tx Fields

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Though still a virtual company, startup Traversa Therapeutics aims to make a splash in the RNAi field this year, carving out a niche for itself in the reagent, screening, and therapeutics fields with a proprietary delivery technology.
 
According to Traversa President and CEO Hans Petersen, the company intends to use the technology with siRNA-based cancer therapeutics developed in-house, while licensing it out on a target-by-target basis to other RNAi drug developers.
 
Traversa also plans to sell the technology to big pharma for use in screening experiments, and to secure a reagent partner that can market and distribute the technology in kits for cellular assay experiments.
 
These last two aspects of the company’s business strategy are expected to provide Traversa with a revenue stream that could begin flowing as early as next year and that would help offset the costs of its therapeutic research and development efforts, Petersen said.
 
Traversa was founded less than a year ago by University of California, San Diego, researcher Steven Dowdy to commercialize a delivery technology that combines protein transduction domains linked with a double-stranded RNA binding domain.
 
This so-called PTD-DRBD technology encapsulates siRNAs, which can then be systemically administered with no apparent cytotoxicity, Petersen told RNAi News this week.
 
With patent applications on the technology still to be filed, Petersen declined to provide specific details about PTD-DRBD. However, he said early data shows it can be used to deliver siRNAs into a number of cell types — including primary cells, human stem cells, hematopoietic lineages such as T cells, B cells, and macrophages, and certain tumor cells — with almost 100 percent efficiency.
 
Some of these data, along with in vivo data on the use of the technology for tumor suppression, are expected to be published in the near future, he noted.
 
Despite Petersen’s reticence to comment on the details of PTD-DRBD publicly, he has not been shy about offering details privately to potential industry partners. Traversa, he said, is in negotiations with three possible reagent promotion and distribution partners, adding that “we’re at the term sheet stage with one.”
 
Once a deal is signed, he said, Traversa could begin seeing royalties on kit sales within 14 months, in addition to an expected upfront payment.
 
Petersen noted that his company will oversee material manufacturing through an already finalized partnership with Althea Technologies.
 
He declined to specify the companies Traversa is in talks with, but it appears that Invitrogen is an unlikely candidate since the PTD-DRBD technology “probably will compete directly with Lipofectamine,” according to Petersen.
 
“Our technology works better [than Lipofectamine] in several cell lines … [particularly] the human stem cell line,” he said. “We have a niche [in which] to play going head to head with Lipofectamine.”
 
As for the screening side of Traversa’s business model, Petersen said the company will market PTD-DRBD itself to the major small-molecule drug developers for use in their in-house screening experiments.
 

“We’re expecting to require less venture capital because of [the reagent and screening] revenue streams.”

“It’s large pharma screening, so [companies] would have their 30,000 siRNAs and would test against multiple cell lines in triplicate,” he said. “We would provide the material and charge per well.”
 
The therapeutics arena is expected to be a tougher nut to crack, Petersen said, noting that despite Traversa’s promising data, “it’s still very early [and] there’s a lot of evaluation that needs to happen before someone is going to come along and sign a target-based licensing deal with us.”
 
Additionally, Traversa’s in-house tumor-suppressor drug programs, the details of which Petersen declined to provide, will be slow to build momentum as the company initially concerns itself with its earlier-stage reagent and screening business, as well as with fundraising and building up a staff.
 
Currently, Traversa has no employees and is run primarily by Petersen on a consultant basis. During 2007, however, the company anticipates hiring seven scientific employees, including Petersen and a vice president of research, and two general and administrative staffers.
 
Office and laboratory space has already been secured, Petersen said.
 
As it begins to look for new employees, Traversa is also prepping to begin the search for financing — although it doesn’t anticipate needing the kinds of funds that other RNAi therapeutic startups require.
 
“We’re expecting to require less venture capital because of [the reagent and screening] revenue streams,” Petersen said.
 
He declined to offer estimates on how much the company will seek from investors, but said that it is “much less than we will spend on the company over the next 18 months. We expect to ask for about a third of the amount of dollars we expect to spend on R&D, business development, and sales activities.”
 
Petersen said that Traversa will likely begin approaching strategic investors in the next two or three weeks.