Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.The new chairman of Serenex Inc., which closed a venture round of $15 million this summer, says there is a reason the company is getting the likes of Pfizer, Pharmacia and Chiron Corp to try its technology.

Paul Howard, who also is a partner with Metaphase Venture Partners, the company’s first backer, was appointed chairman of Serenex this week as Richard Kent takes over the chief executive slot from founder Robert Dishman.

Howard tells Local Tech Wire that Serenex technology has an advantage that helps it land marquee names as trial users of its product.

Serenex promises that it has a way to dramatically increase the speed of drug discovery yet there also is plenty of competition. “There are lots playing in this general area of trying to do lead optimization more effectively,” he acknowledges.

But, Howard adds, “We have not seen anyone able to achieve what Serenex has. They took a well established technique, found a new way to package it and built a system around it.”

Serenex uses an affinity chromatography technique, the concept of which is familiar to biologists and chemists in pharmaceutical companies. Serenex takes that affinity approach and “turns it on its head,” says Dr. Stephen Hall, Serenex’s senior VP of research and development.

The changes make it possible to examine a great many proteins as they interact with chemicals big pharamceutical companies want to test as possible drugs.

Hall says the technique has already shown its ability to reveal unexpected results. Serenex is named for serendipity, unexpected discovery. In biotech, serendipity has resulted in many of the most successful drugs, such as Viagra, which was orginally tested as a heart drug when its other effects were discovered.

The company thinks it will provide what may be the first real boost in drug discovery speed — the holy grail of bioinformatics.

Familiarity makes the heart grow fonder

Because the Serenex product is based on such familiar concepts, large pharmaceutical companies see its potential more quickly. “That gives it a leg up over competitors,” Howard says. “You’re starting with a technology that is fairly well understood, not some novel technology no one ever heard of.”

“From the beginning the company was able to get pilot trial programs with large pharmaceutical companies. The day after we put in series A money, they signed up Pfizer to do an evaluation. They’ve since closed deals with Johnson and Johnson and Chiron.”

Getting in the doors of these big pharmaceutical companies “let’s the product sell itself,” says Howard. “You don’t have to take the company’s word for what it will do. You run trials with customers and let the data sell the customer on a more intimate collaborative deal.

“So that’s the major differentiator, the technology is here today and ready to use.”

The new technique allows Serenex to screen hundreds or thousands of times more proteins and compounds than possible without it. “To date, we’ve only been able to look under the lamp post.” That limits testing to tens of compound or protein interactions rather hundreds or thousands, says Howard.

He describes the product as “a very accurate dashboard for the chemist.”

Looking for new drugs

The company says its product will speed discovery of new drugs and help identify and address potential side effects prior to expensive animal toxicity testing and clinical trials. It may, says Howard, be useful even to tune up current drugs by eliminating side effects in some populations or enhancing positive effects.

Dr. Garheng Kong, of Serenex investor Intersouth Partners tells Local Tech Wire, the venture firm led Serenex’ B round because “they have a unique technology and have already shown it’s value to the pharmaceutical industry, having signed four large corporations.”

But, Kong noted, they also have “in house proprietary targets they will use for drug discovery.”

Or, as Howard says, “drug candidates.”

Kong pointed out that Serenex is also “deep in management expertise.”

It hired Steve Hall as VP of research and development from Eli Lilly in April. Hall has 20 years of drug discovery experience, says Kong.

This week it hired Richard Kent, who has an equal amount of experience in drug development.

Dishman, who is taking a short break, may move on to yet another start-up soon, says Howard. “He’s involved with a number of companies and frankly, we have a few things we’ll be showing him,” he says, speaking of Metaphase, which has backed about 35 biotech companies.

Howard and Metaphase Venture Partners are not new believers in Serenex. The firm was the first backer for Serenex. “We seeded them at $2 million,” Howard says. In August’s $15 million B round, Intersouth Partners of Durham and Lilly Ventures joined Metaphase.

Serenex: www.serenex.com