Adams, Harkness & Hill, the Boston-based institutional investment bank, scouted the Triangle’s biotech scene for the second time last week.

Regional biotech stalwarts such as serial entrepreneur Max Wallace, among others, have pointed out that the region lacks a presence by the big and mid-sized investment banks. This makes it tougher for regional biotech start-ups to close big late funding rounds. (Wallace is president, chief executive, and a founder of Durham-based Cogent Neuroscience, which is hunting for third round investors outside the region.)

Dr. Greg Brown, co-head of investment banking and head of healthcare practice at Adams Harkness, first came to the Triangle in March. He visited five biotech companies at that time. In last week’s visit, Brown met with members of the local biomedical business community.

“We continue to be impressed by the high quality of the companies and executive leadership in the RTP,” Brown said in a statement. The firm is close-mouthed about the companies it visited and any possible investment plans.

Brown, the founder of Adams Harkness’ healthcare banking division, met with biotech leaders at the Biotechnology Center. The Corporate Investment Center Inc., of Raleigh, arranged the meetings.

The Biotech Center’s Doug Darr says, “It’s always good when they come back.” Darr said Brown met with representatives from ICAgen Inc., Durham; Touch Scientific Inc., Raleigh; PharmaNetics Inc., Morrisville; and law firm Kilpatrick Stockton, which has many technology clients.

Adams Harkness is a privately held mid-sized investment bank that focuses on emerging growth companies in technology, healthcare and consumer sectors.

Targacept enters development deal

Alabama-based Transzyme will develop a bioassay to help Winston-Salem’s Targacept hunt for drugs to treat central nervous system diseases.

Targacept’s Don Kirksey, VP of corporate and business development, says financial details of the deal with Transzyme are undisclosed, but adds, “They are doing a service for us.”

He says the assay will help discover compounds that offer neurological protection against a variety of diseases.

Targacept, the R.J.Reynold’s spin-off that raised a whopping $30.4 million first round in August 2000, already has several product candidates to treat neurological, psychiatric and gastrointestinal diseases.

It bases its research on the nicotinic receptors in the brain and nervous system. Nicotine itself has shown effectiveness in treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but its side effects limit its use.

Targacept seeks drugs that are more effective than nicotine but have fewer side effects. These nicotinic compounds work by interacting with the body’s nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which are concentrated primarily in the brain, spinal cord, nerve cells and muscles. Studies have shown that these receptors are involved in cognition, pain and neurodegeneration.

Kirksey says the agreement with Transzyme “goes to the heart of their technology,” and should produce an assay “in a relatively short time.”

Targacept signed a collaborative research and license agreement with Aventis Pharma (NYSE: AVE) in April to discover and develop drugs derived from the Aventis Pharma library of compounds for the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and others.

The two companies have collaborated since 1998 when Aventis Pharma obtained exclusive global rights to certain compounds in Targacept’s library that showed potential to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The research term of that agreement, originally set for two years, was extended until 2003.

Geron’s Okarma on collaboration with Merix

Dr. Thomas Okarma, CEO and president of CA-based Geron Corp., says he liked Triangle-based Merix Biosciences’ invention of a new type of vaccine so much that he tried to get the whole operation into Geron.

Merix scientists have developed a method to make “personalized” vaccines to attack a patient’s specific cancer. Because the vaccines can be made from only a few tumor cells, they have the potential to fight the disease at any stage.

Okarma talked to Local Tech Wire following his panel appearance at the Biotech 2002 conference at the Sheraton Imperial in the Triangle Monday.

Geron is developing anti-aging therapies and regenerative medicine based on controversial embryonic stem cells. But it is best known for its work with the tabs on the ends of chromosomes called telomeres. Telomeres shorten as cells divide, limiting their life – and ours.

It also studies telomerase, an enzyme that makes cancer cells divide uncontrollably.

“When you take what Merix discovered and combine it with telomerase, which is a universal cancer marker, the potential is a universal single process for anyone with any kind of cancer. That’s what we’re testing with Merix,” Okarma says. Last fall, Merix raised $40 million in venture capital in the largest single private round for a biotech company in the Triangle.

The vaccine is in Phase I clinical trials of its safety and efficacy against prostate cancer at Duke University.

“This is a terrible time for biotech trying to raise money for futuristic issues like regenerative medicine,” says Okarma. “So Geron’s strategy here is to partner with companies attacking cancer, which is much more near term. The oncology products should help finance the more difficult regenerative medicine products.”

Targacept Web site:

Adams Harkness & Hill Web site:

Geron Corp. Web site:

Merix Biosciences Web site: