Norak Biosciences has signed its first major commercial licensing agreement with major pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, giving it a marquee client for its Transfluor drug discovery technology.

“This is a major milestone for the company,” says Norak president and chief executive officer Roger D. Blevins.

Norak’s VP of business development Terry Willard, says that AstraZeneca will pay fees in undisclosed amounts for its limited, non-exclusive license, sub-licenses, access to technology, and cell biology support from Norak.

AstraZeneca also agrees to provide feedback to Norak on the performance and results of its use against AstraZeneca’s library of 100,000 potential drug compounds.

Norak’s Transfluor helps identify compounds that affect G protein-coupled receptors faster and less expensively than other current methods. Drugs bind to GPCRs on cells to change functions inside the cell.

“Potentially, they have a role in all bodily functions,” Willard says.

GPCRs have provided a rich target for drug discovery. Nearly 60 percent of all prescription drugs on the market today target them, yet only about 200 of an estimated 800 such GPCR targets are known. Most major pharmaceutical companies have GPCR drug discovery efforts underway.

Potential drugs a secret

Willard says AstraZeneca is using the Norak technology in undisclosed internal drug discovery projects. “None of these guys want the other pharmas to know what they’re working on,” he says.

The director of AstraZeneca’s advanced science and technology laboratory, Elaine Sullivan, says evaluation of Norak’s Transfluor has demonstrated its potential to help the company in its drug discovery efforts.

Willard says this is the first of several such licensing deals it has in the works. The company hopes to do enough licensing to further support its internal drug development program.

Own drug research continues

Norak wants to develop compounds that reduce people’s tolerance to certain drugs such as morphine.

“People develop tolerance to a drug like morphine and it has to be given in greater amounts or more frequently until at some level it becomes toxic,” Willard says. If Norak finds compounds that inhibit tolerance, it would make drugs effective longer.

“So,” Willard says, “compounds that affect the GPCRs can be “used as drugs themselves or as adjuncts to drugs to increase their effectiveness,” Willard says.

Norak has already put its own high throughput screening system in place for its own drug discovery process, Willard says.

AstraZeneca is the number four pharmaceutical company in the world with annual sales of more than $16.4 billion.

Norak’s scientific founders, Drs. Marc Caron, Robert Lefkowitz and Larry Barak, spent decades doing research on GPCR signaling pathways at Duke University Medical Center prior to founding of Norak in 1999.

Atlanta-based Noro-Moseley Partners led the company’s $13 million second round, putting in $4 million. Durham’s Intersouth Partners invested $3.25 million, and the Aurora Funds put up $1.75 million. Another million came from two passive investors.

The company recently moved to a new headquarters from its original location at the Becton Dickinson incubator.

Willard says the company expects the latest investment to take it through next year. He adds that the company plans to plow its licensing income back into its internal drug discovery program. “By next year we expect to have discovered some compounds and that could be used to support a subsequent financing,” he says.