Life sciences briefing: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

Featured companies: AerovectRx, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Harmony Information Systems, Intelligent Hospital Systems, Merrion Pharmaceuticals, Syntaxin, SymBio Pharmaceuticals

UPDATED: Expanded items on Harmony Info, SymBio Pharma and Merrion Pharma, added Dicerna item.
UPDATE REDUX: Added Syntaxin item.

syntaxin-logo.gifU.K. biotech Syntaxin raises £16M for pain and nervous-system drugs — Syntaxin, a U.K. biotech focused on drugs that affect cell secretion, raised £16 million ($33.2 million) in a second funding round. The company’s release is here.

Investors in the round included SR One, the venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline; Life Science Partners; Abingworth; Johnson & Johnson Development; and Quest for Growth. Syntaxin is developing drugs derived from bacterial toxins that block the release of chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which may be useful in treating pain, respiratory disease, neurological problems and obesity and related metabolic disorders.

harmony-is-logo.jpgHarmony Info, a healthcare IT provider, raises $28M to fund acquisition and expand sales — Reston, Va.-based Harmony Information Systems, a maker of healthcare software for government agencies and nonprofits, raised $28 million in a second funding round consisting of equity and debt. Investors included JMI Equity, Updata Partners, ORIX Venture Finance and Comerica Bank.

On Monday, Harmony announced the acquisition of rival Synergy Software Technologies for undisclosed terms. Harmony provides IT systems that handle electronic medical records, billing and insurance-claims management.

symbio-logo.jpgJapan’s SymBio Pharma closes in on ¥2B funding — Tokyo’s SymBio Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharma founded in 2005, is near closing a ¥2 billion ($17.4 million) third round of funding, VentureWire reports (subscription required). The company is focused on acquiring and developing drugs for cancer, blood disease and autoimmune conditions.

Co-founder Lowell Sears, a former Amgen CFO and now CEO of Sears Capital Management, has long been active in the Asian pharmaceuticals market. From VentureWire:

He was a founding investor, for instance, in Peninsula Pharmaceuticals Inc., an Alameda, Calif.-based company that licensed late-stage antibiotics from Japanese companies. Johnson & Johnson acquired Peninsula in 2005, and Forest Laboratories Inc. bought Peninsula spinout Cerexa Inc. in January.

Sears and Fuminori Yoshida, whom Sears once hired to be president of Amgen’s Japanese unit, started SymBio to do the reverse of Peninsula by acquiring Asian product rights.

Like JapanBridge, an MPM Capital-founded company we wrote about here, SymBio essentially aims to acquire drugs or drug candidates from elsewhere in order to win regulatory approval and sell them in Japan.

merrion-logo.jpgIrish specialty pharma Merrion slashes IPO range — Dublin’s Merrion Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharma we last checked in on over the weekend, sharply lowered its expected IPO range. The company, which had hoped to sell as many as 4.6 million shares (listed in the U.S. as American Depositary Shares) for $10 to $12, now expects only $6 to $7 per ADS.

That lowers Merrion’s maximum IPO take to $32.2 million, down from an earlier $55.2 million, and gives the company a post-offering market capitalization of up to $122.9 million. Merrion rejiggers existing drugs to make them easier to take by mouth.

New RNA-interference biotech Dicerna shoots for $13M, aims to work around RNAi patents — Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, a stealthy, Boston-based biotech in the field of RNA interference, aims to raise $13 million in a first funding round, the In Vivo blog reports. The company, co-founded by John Rossi of Duarte, Calif.’s City of Hope National Medical Center and Mark Behlke of Integrated DNA Technologies, is focused on making new drugs via the “gene-silencing” properties of RNAi while sidestepping a patent thicket that has grown up around the technology. The company expects to close its funding in November.

Unless you’re a nucleic-acid chemist (or a patent lawyer focused on same), the details of Dicerna’s strategy are most likely beside the point, although I’m sure the In Vivo folks would welcome your attention if you’re really interested. Suffice to say that the company’s founders believe they’re found a new way to build these gene-silencing molecules that isn’t covered by some of the fundamental patents in the field. If that’s true — and no one will really know for years, if ever — it could spark new attention from Big Pharma and other biotechs that have so far sat out the increasingly frantic, and expensive, race to make RNAi drugs.

As with any early-stage technology, it’s helpful to bear in mind that no one has yet demonstrated that RNAi molecules can even work as safe and effective drugs, much less that they’ll be the magic bullet that some have claimed. Still, a lot of money has been sloshing around the field recently (see our coverage in the third item here), and there’s little doubt that deep-pocketed folks still on the sidelines will want to at least check out Dicerna’s claims.

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