AFraxis CEO Outlines Biotech’s Success With Ultra-Lean Pre-Clinical R&D in Russia

2/26/10Follow @bvbigelow

AFraxis, a mostly stealthy San Diego biotech, is getting ready to come out with a big announcement in the next week or so, but CEO Jay Lichter previewed some key parts of the story yesterday during a presentation before the San Diego Venture Group. He says the biotech has completed pre-clinical testing of a promising compound for treating a form of autism related to Fragile X syndrome.

Lichter, who does double duty as a managing partner of San Diego-based Avalon Ventures, founded aFraxis in 2007—shortly after researchers identified a possible drug target for Fragile X, a family of related mental disorders caused by a defect (or multiple defects) in a single gene on the X chromosome.

Of course, finding a compound that fits a single molecular target (the way a key fits into a lock) is no simple matter. The process can require screening millions of compounds, and then researchers must determine if candidate compounds are reasonably safe for initial use in humans and show the relevant pharmacological activity that justifies commercial development.

“The goal is to make a single exploratory compound and test it in a mouse, and we’ve done that,” Lichter says. The aFraxis CEO didn’t provide a lot of new details about the science. The target, which was identified at MIT in Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa’s laboratory, is PAK, a specific group of enzymes that catalyze neural reactions. Lichter says the same mechanism appears to be in play with schizophrenia. As Denise reported earlier this month, Fragile X Syndrome, which is the most common known cause of autism, is believed to be caused by defects in the gene that produces this group of enzymes.

Lichter’s presentation was instead focused mostly on the ultra-lean company-building approach aFraxis has taken to get this far. After three years, he says the biotech has only a handful of employees, and Avalon has invested a total of roughly $6 million to basically get to a stage where the company could submitt an application to begin clinical trials. “We started from scratch from a paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” Lichter says.

The pre-clinical research was done in record time—and at a savings of roughly $4 million—by joining forces with … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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