Go fish

Znomics, OHSU use zebrafish screening to identify inflammatory disease therapeutics

August25th,2008
Amy Swinderman
PORTLAND, Ore.—Hoping to restore a focus on basic biology in the drug discovery process, Zebrafish-screening firm Znomics Inc. has launched a collaborative research program with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) to develop pre-clinical compounds to treat inflammatory diseases.

Znomics will work with Dr. Thomas Scanlan, director of OHSU's Chemical Biology Program, to design and develop pre-clinical compounds to treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Scanlan has conducted leading work in small molecule discovery in "dissociating glucocorticoid" compounds that retain the desired anti-inflammatory action, but without having the serious side effects of steroids. Znomics will fund the program and has the option to exclusively license the rights to the discoveries. Financial terms of the agreement were not released.

Znomics and OHSU have been partners for many years. Znomics leases space from the university, and the new research agreement evolved out of work that was done in the OHSU lab of Dr. Roger Cone, a Znomics co-founder and zebrafish technology pioneer.

"We have allowed our academics to take the time to grow the company," says Cone, now a senior scientist at OHSU's  Vollum Institute. "We're now in the growth stage, where the academics are stepping back to an advisory role and hiring professionals to design new compounds."

Znomics is excited about the opportunity to work with Scanlan and identify drugs for debilitating inflammation-related diseases, "which is a large unmet medical need," says CSO Bruce Beutel.

"One of the special things about Znomics is its relationship with the academic community," Beutel says. "I view our relationship with OHSU as another good example of this kind of academic-industry collaboration."

A vertebrate with genes homologous to approximately 80 to 90 percent of the genes found in humans, zebrafish can be rapidly and cheaply generated and are easy to be studied because of their transparency. Znomics' ZeneMark Library, a comprehensive and searchable collection of mutant zebrafish lines, contains mutations in more than 11,000 different zebrafish genes, many of which are similar to human genes.

Beutel, who recently joined Znomics after more than 12 years of pharma experience at Abbott Laboratories, says the zebrafish whole animal approach can have a significant impact not just on this partnership, but also on the drug discovery process in general.

"The zebrafish technology has been undervalued by the pharmaceutical industry because it is still really new, with most of the new science evolving in the academic community," he says. "The zebrafish are unique in that you can screen large numbers of compounds, but you can do it in a whole animal where all possible therapeutic targets are being screened at once for their potential across many disease areas." DDN
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