Like many of the first generation of biotech companies, Immunex Corp.'s expertise is in biology - in this case the discovery of immune regulating cytokines and related factors, as well as a more recent focus on vascular biology. As toolkit technologies have been discovered since IMNX's founding in 1981, the company has incorporated gene databases, custom DNA microarrays, bioinformatics and high throughput screening in house, while going outside for combinatorial chemistry, genome databases, off-the-shelf microarrays and human antibody production.

This drug discovery engine is designed to support IMNX's goal of three to four new INDs per year, which it expects to reach in five to seven years, compared to its historical average of one IND a year.

But even though it is using genomics and high throughput screening technologies to increase the speed and volume of its discovery programs, IMNX (Seattle, Wash.) continues to be rooted in biology, and thus the company can be seen to approach the new "combination" biotech model from a classic base (see Back to School, BioCentury, Sept. 5).

"Think of us as a biological knowledge company that can work with other companies that have other technology," said Edward Fritzky, chairman, president and CEO.

"I think the secret to success is to have robust biology, to make sense of genomics so it's not just a tool in untrained hands," added Doug Williams, executive vice president and chief technology officer. "I wish it were as easy as just turning the crank, but it takes a lot more insight than that to do it on a sustainable basis. You need biology to think it through - we've got great tools for genomics and proteomics, but those tools are useless unless they're in the hands of someone who knows how to ask the right questions upfront."

The discovery engine

IMNX's discovery engine incorporates tools from internal and external sources to generate a large number of targets for biological evaluation and screening. The company begins with its internal database of expressed sequence tag (EST) gene sequences, which represents RNA expressed in particular cells of interest that are linked to the company's biological expertise. From this database IMNX has identified genes such as TRAIL (TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand, also called Apo-2 ligand (Apo2L)) and the TNF family receptor RANK (receptor activator of NFkB).