Life sciences briefing: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007

Featured companies: American Aerogel, Clinicient, Frazier Healthcare Ventures, Genome Diagnostics, RadPharm, RainDance Technologies, Vivacta

UPDATED: Expanded items on Vitae, RadPharm, Vivacta and Genome Diagnostics. Intelligent Bio-Systems is now covered in a standalone item here.

vitae-pharma-logo.jpgVitae Pharma takes in $15M for blood pressure, diabetes drugs — Vitae Pharmaceuticals, a Fort Washington, Pa., biotech focused on new drugs for hypertension and metabolic disorders, raised $15 million in a fourth funding round, VentureWire reports (subscription required). Boehringer Ingelheim, which struck a major partnership with Vitae in mid-October (PDF link), provided the funding.

That partnership calls for the two companies to co-develop Vitae drug candidates that inhibit a protein called 11beta-HSD1, an enzyme that helps regulate the hormone cortisol. The drugs may be useful in treating diabetes, obesity and hypertension. B-I agreed to pay Vitae $36.5 million in cash, research funding and an at-the-time unspecified equity investment, as well as up to $300 million in potential milestone payments.

Vitae’s other major drug program involves compounds that inhibit the protein renin, which regulates blood pressure and vascular function. Renin inhibitors, which could be useful in treating hypertension, have been a white whale of sorts for the drug industry over the past 30 years (see, for instance, this somewhat technical discussion of the history here).

vivacta-logo.gifUK’s Vivacta draws in $12M for medical diagnostics — Vivacta, a U.K. medical-diagnostic company formerly known as PanOpSys, raised $12 million in a second funding round. Investors included AGF Private Equity, HBM BioVentures, Spark Ventures and Viking.

Vivacta is developing a fast, “point of care” diagnostic system intended to deliver laboratory-quality test readings from drawn blood in doctors’ offices or at a hospital bedside. The technology is based on a “piezoelectric” film coated with antibodies to particular blood proteins. Piezoelectric devices produce current when compressed, so theoretically this approach should allow a direct measurement of blood proteins by generating current proportional to the density of antibodies that capture any particular blood protein.

radpharm-logo.jpgRadPharm gets $10M for medical-image reviews — RadPharm, a Princeton, N.J., provider of medical-image review services, raised $10 million in a second funding round. Investors include Siemens Venture Capital, Ampersand Ventures, Adams Street Partners and Tang Capital Management.

RadPharm essentially provides outsourced analysis of medical images ranging from CAT scans to X-rays for clinical trials, whose outcomes can hinge on the way those images are read and analyzed. Trials of cancer drugs, for instance, frequently look at whether tumors shrink, stabilize or grow, and determining that requires someone to look at actual patient X-rays or other images and decide what they actually show. RadPharm’s service provides “centralized, independent, blinded interpretation” of such scans.

genome-diagnostics-logo.jpgGenome Diagnostics, cancer-test maker, aims for $1.6M — Genome Diagnostics, a Pasadena, Calif., developer of cancer diagnostic tests, has raised several hundred thousand dollars toward an anticipated $1.6 million first funding round, VentureWire reports. B.C. Capital of Israel and several individual investors provided the funds.

According to VentureWire, the company aims to produce a diagnostic test for prostate cancer based upon gene variations detected by sequencing a patient’s entire genome. That sounds unlikely on several levels, the first of which is that “whole-genome sequencing” — VentureWire’s description of what the company is doing — is still incredibly expensive, with an estimated cost of $100,000 or more.

It seems far more likely that the company will do a rough-and-ready genome scan that samples only several hundred thousand of the genome’s three billion DNA “letters” that are known to vary between individuals — at least, that is, unless Genome Diagnostics is betting that the cost of whole-genome sequencing will drop to the fabled $1,000 or so by the time it gets its product to market. And maybe that’s exactly what the company is doing, although that would mean that its initial testing costs are going to be extraordinarily high.

It’s also far from clear exactly what sort of prognostic information the company hopes to obtain from a genome scan of either type, since most genetic-association studies can only show increases or decreases in the probability of disease, and with such a margin of error that it’s difficult to see how that information could possibly serve a diagnostic purpose. I’ll try to circle back to the company in order to get a better idea of what they’re up to for a future post.

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