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ATLANTA … Pharmasset, an antiviral and anticancer drug discovery and development company, has a new president and chief executive officer.

He’s P. Schaefer Price, who was named to the job last week..

Price, most recently executive in residence at Bay City Capital, was previously president of PowderJect Vaccines. The subsidiary of Powderject Pharmaceuticals saw its business grow from a small research group into the world’s sixth largest vaccine company prior to its acquisition by Chiron Corp.

Pharmasset is on the forefront of Atlanta’s emerging life sciences industry, which already ranks eighth nationally according to the annual Ernst & Young report. The company specializes in the nucleoside science that’s at the heart of the anti-viral assault researchers use to fight AIDS, Hepatitis, and cancers.

The first AIDS drug, AZT, is based on anti-retroviral nucleosides, which affect a viruses or cancer cell’s ability to replicate. “In lay terms, they throw a monkey wrench into the viral or cancer machinery,” Alan Roemer, vice president of business development and general manager, tells LTW.

Roemer points out that nucleoside reverse transcription inhibitors account for about half of sales of anti-HIV and Hepatitis B and C drugs. “They’re an important class of compounds not only scientifically, but also in the marketplace,” he says.

Beating resistance

The company’s lead compound, Reverset, is performing well in Phase II trials against HIV, reducing viral load even for patients with resistance to other drugs. The big problem in treating AIDS today is patient resistance to anti-HIV drugs, which is why new ones are eagerly sought.

Pharmasset has signed a collaborative licensing agreement to develop and commercialize Reverset for treatment of HIV with Incyte Corp. (NASDAQ:INCY). Incyte paid Pharmasset an undisclosed amount upfront and will pay performance milestone fees and royalties on sales in the U.S., Europe, and specified other markets.

Paul Friedman, M.D., Incyte’s CEO, said when the deal closed, “There remains a critical need for new therapies that address the drug resistance which often occurs after exposure to first-generation HIV drugs. ” He notes there is a growing incidence of patients who are infected with resistance HIV strains initially. Clinical and pre-clinical studies suggest Reverset should help these patients.

Nine SBIR Grants

Founded in May 1998, Pharmasset has raised a total of $16 million in venture backing from two institutional investors, TVM Techno Venture Management of Munich, Germany and Boston, and MPM Asset Management.

Dupont Pharmaceuticals Co. has also taken and equity stake and owns 2.2 percent of the company.

“From the outset, we sought investments from strategic partners rather than more traditional venture capital sources,” Roemer says.

The company has also been successful in obtaining nine Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants from National Institute of Health agencies that total over $1 million.

Its nine awards so far include research grants for the company to hunt for nucleotide analogs with antiviral activity against smallpox and related viruses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US government recently designated the poxvirus family as a high priority research area due to its potential role in bioterrorism. This concern is due to the lack of a proven, rapidly deployable treatment for smallpox, a virus considered eradicated from the world population since December 1979.

Pharmasset also received SBIR grants to study using its synthesized nucleosides to combat colon cancer, the Epstein Barr and Hepatitis B viruses, and for delivering cancer drugs.

Pharmasset has 30 employees in a 16, 500 square foot offices in a free-standing facility in Atlanta, Roemer says, and will “continue on its growth path.”

Roemer, says the Pharmasset, like most biotech startups, continues to look for venture backing, but declined to say how much or when a next round is expected to close.

Pharmasset founders are:

  • Raymond F. Schinazi, Ph.D. – principal founder, director, and scientific Advisor – Emory University/VA Medical Center.

  • Chung K. Chu, Ph.D. – founder and scientific advisor – University of Georgia.

  • Jean-Pierre Sommadossi, Ph.D. – founder – chairman and CEO of Idenix Pharmaceuticals (Formerly of the University of Alabama — Birmingham).

  • Dennis C. Liotta, Ph.D. – founder and scientific advisor – Emory University.
  • Pharmasset: www.pharmasset.com