Bionomics and Hybrigen explain their partnership

By Melissa Trudinger
Monday, 26 August, 2002

One of the more interesting collaborations between an Australian biotechnology company and a US company is the alliance between Adelaide genomics company Bionomics and proteomics company Hybrigen, based in Texas.

The two companies met last year at the Bio 2001 conference in San Diego and rapidly entered into a non-revenue generating partnership looking for drug targets for breast cancer by September 2001, which was further cemented in January this year with an expansion into angiogenesis targets.

According to Bionomics CEO Deborah Rathjen, there was an obvious fit between the two companies and this has been bolstered by a good fit culturally. Hybrigen founder and CEO David Edwards, in Australia for the AusBiotech 2002 conference last week, calls it a good scientific and philosophical match.

The basis of the collaboration is the complementary approaches taken by the two companies. Bionomics uses proprietary genomics technology to identify genes that can be used as potential drug targets for serious medical conditions including breast cancer, epilepsy and angiogenesis.

Hybrigen, on the other hand, uses an extremely specific and sensitive two-hybrid system to tease out the protein-protein interactions.

"It's the first continuously adjusted two-hybrid system. It allows you to compare all possible proteins at the same time with the starting-point," said Edwards.

He explained that the system, known as the HybrEXCEL Interaction Hybrid System, looks at transient, hard to detect interactions as well as more promiscuous interactions, as affinity is not relevant.

"The offshoot is that in every disease pathway we have looked at so far we have been able to find new targets," Edwards said. "Extremely rich data comes out. It allows the modelling of pathways and mapping of interactions."

Another benefit of the system is the ability it has to determine the exact site of interaction between proteins. Hybrigen constructs disease-specific libraries that contain both whole proteins and protein fragments, allowing the screening process to identify the active sites of the interacting proteins.

The screening process is massively parallel and takes approximately 12 weeks to go from library construction through to completion of the initial round of screening, said Edwards. He calls it "wetware" as it relies on a biological system, rather than just software or hardware.

Secondary rounds of screening take four weeks, a timeframe imposed by the growth of the biological system.

The collaboration has already yielded a number of new targets for Bionomics' breast cancer and angiogenesis drug target discovery programs.

"We're finding targets that we wouldn't expect to be associated with breast cancer. Now we're expanding outwards," said Rathjen. "Protein-protein interactions will become the next wave of new drug targets."

She explained that the task now is to determine which new targets should be further developed. While some of the targets might be out-licensed, others will be carried forward by Bionomics.

"There is a lot of information coming out of the screens and more to do. It's one of those collaborations where there is so much information that we don't want to work on the first thing that comes out. We need to prioritise," she said.

"Some of the proteins that come out of the Bionomics collaboration will be saleable in themselves. Bionomics has the capability to prioritise the targets," added Edwards.

Rathjen said that from the outset the intention has been for IP to be co-owned by the two companies and commercialisation may occur through a separate entity spun out of the venture.

"We can create a lot of value in this collaboration, much more than we could by working on our own," said Rathjen.

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