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Compugen hits gold with Pfizer

The in silico applications of Israeli company Compugen are attracting growing interest from big pharma, the latest example of which is the collaboration agreement signed at the end of December between the Tel-Aviv firm and the world's leading pharmaceutical company Pfizer concerning the development of therapeutic peptides aimed at three of the US giant's targets (see Summary Table of Agreements). Within the next six months to one year, the Israeli drug delivery company will deliver around 100 peptides to its new customer developed using its proprietary discovery technologies. "This is the first time a manufacturer has come to us looking for a tailor-made discovery process", enthused Compugen co-director Martin Gerstel. "This is a key turning point for our company".

From bioinformatics to splicing

Following its creation in 1993 by three former recruits of the Israeli army's elite informatics unit, Compugen first made its mark as a bioinformatics company using computational technologies combining biology and medicine. "At the start of the 1990s, biologist Liat Mintz, wife of co-founder Eli Mintz, was working on the human gene project at the Institut Pasteur in France. She prompted the creation of specially designed computers to considerably speed up analysis of the data generated by sequencing: Merck was the start-up firm's first customer", Martin Gerstelrecalled American-born Martin Gerstel, who trained in science and Yale and in business at the University of Stanford, and who joined Compugen in 1997. That year, the young start-up company also made great strides on the purely scientific front. "Using his algorithms, the company's star mathematician, Mor Amitai, devised an alternative approach to splicing, namely the idea that any gene can code for several different proteins", he continued. However, it was only after its listing on Nasdaq in August 2000 that the company really began to find its way. Compugen is now refocusing its activity on predictive biological tools and is patiently creating an infrastructure for in silico prediction. "In 2005, we completed another stage with the creation of our first discovery technologies, of which there are now ten in all. Obviously, the key thing is the science rather than the technology. These platforms certainly save the industry time: if Merck decided to duplicate them, it would take at least five years. But above all, they offer a competitive advantage in terms of selectivity", added Martin Gerstel. The Compugen economic model progressed as a result and the Israeli company is today seeking to license its own discoveries and create partnerships to license tailor-made discoveries.

Applications concerning biomarkers and targets

The principle of collaboration concerns biomarkers and therapeutic targets. Regarding the former, Compugen has had a number of significant results. It has been active over the last two years with fellow Israeli company Teva in seeking biomarkers suitable for use in the pre-clinical phases of drug development in the field of renal toxicity (see Summary Table of Agreements). The company also signed an agreement in 2008 with Roche to identify genetic variations to enable prediction of response to drugs used in rheumatoid arthritis using its proprietary GeneVa technology (see Summary Table of Agreements). The Tel-Aviv firm has also signed two agreements in recent months with major diagnostics players concerning collaboration on markers for eclampsia and ovarian cancer. Finally, it has just announced the discovery of a genetic marker for predisposition to type 2 diabetes.

Regarding therapeutic targets, Compugen signed a partnership deal last October with Bayer Schering concerning exclusive licences for the development of monoclonal antibodies after a six-month research period (see Summary Table of Agreements). "There is absolutely no doubt that this is one area in which we have the highest potential for discovery", stated Martin Gerstel, who made no secret of his desire to conclude a major deal in this field. For the last two years or so, the Israeli firm has also been highly active in the field of G-protein-coupled receptors (see BioPharmaceutiques No. 9). "More than half of all prescription drugs work by acting on these membrane protein receptors", Martin Gerstel pointed out. Using its ad hoc platform (or "peptidome"), Compugen has fully developed vast expertise in the field of the GPCR peptide ligands, thereby earning itself collaboration agreements since 2008 with Merck&Co and with Merck Serono. The agreement with the latter company concerns the field of inflammatory diseases (see Summary Table of Agreements).

Everything comes to those who wait

Last but not least, at the very end of 2009, the Israeli biotech firm provided a public blow-by-blow account of the discovery and experimental validation of a new membrane protein, CGEN-15001, and of a new therapeutic target, CGEN-671. The first may be used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, while the second may constitute a target for the treatment of epithelial tumours (carcinomas). In all, this series of announcements owes nothing to chance. "It is only 18 months since Compugen was able to validate its initial products and demonstrate the feasibility of its techniques", confessed Martin Gersrtel. This acceleration has provided investors with welcome reassurance. Following its first capital increase in December (USD 20 m) since it was first listed on Wall Street, the company is counting on balancing its results by 2012. The first Israeli biotech company to be listed on the Tel-Aviv stock exchange is hoping in particular during the coming months to be able to repay the patience of its shareholders by signing further "tailor-made discovery" agreements.