Life sciences briefing: Monday, Dec. 3, 2007

Featured companies: CoMentis, ForHealth Technologies, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, QuantomiX, Progenitor Cell Therapy, River Diagnostics, Topaz Pharmaceuticals

UPDATED: Expanded items on CoMentis, Topaz and ForHealth.CoMentis gets $12M for eye, Alzheimer’s treatments — South San Francisco’s CoMentis, a biotech pursuing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration, raised $12 million in a third funding round, VentureWire reports (subscription required). Wellington Management provided the funding.

The company’s lead drug candidate, ATG003, is an eye drop designed to treat age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in the elderly. The drug inhibits a particular cell-surface “receptor” protein called nAChR that helps promote the growth of blood vessels. In AMD, abnormal vessels obscure vision by leading blood and fluid into the retina. Existing treatments for AMD — principally Genentech’s Lucentis and Avastin — also inhibit vessel growth, but must both be delivered by injection into the eye. ATG003 is in mid-stage human tests.

CoMentis is also developing an Alzheimer’s drug, CTS-21166, which inhibits beta secretase, a protein thought — but not proven — to play a key role in the development of the cognitive disorder. Beta secretase cuts another protein called amyloid precursor protein into pieces, one of which is commonly known as beta amyloid, a neurotoxic protein that clumps together in “plaques” around neurons in the brains of many Alzheimer’s patients.

Inhibit beta secretase, the theory goes, and you’ll cut off the production of beta amyloid and maybe alter the course of the disease. That drug is still in early-stage human testing.

Topaz Pharma takes in $20M for head-lice treatment — Philadelphia’s Topaz Pharmaceuticals, a company developing a new, naturally derived treatment for head lice in children, raised $20 million in a first funding round. Aisling Capital and Fidelity Biosciences provided the funding.

The head-lice treatment, which Topaz doesn’t seem to have named yet, employs an active ingredient derived from a naturally occurring soil organism that is toxic to head and body lice. The company also says it is working on treatments for acne and infection as well as childhood-disease vaccines.

forhealth-logo.JPGForHealth Tech gets $9M for automated pharmacy systems — Daytona Beach, Fla.-based ForHealth Technologies, a developer of automated systems for hospital pharmacies, raised $4 million in equity and an additional $5 million in debt. Equity investors included New Enterprise Associates, National Healthcare Services, Red River Ventures, and Chisholm Private Capital. Square 1 Bank provided the debt.

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