LIMERICK, Pa.—Rockland Immunochemicals has won a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to fund its plan to develop synthetic antibodies, otherwise known as aptamers. The company aims to develop aptamers that can be used to detect and quantify modified RNAs.
“Aptamers are thought of as an alternative or substitute to antibodies, and they fit well within our portfolio of antibody and immunoassay reagents,” David Chimento, assistant laboratory director at Rockland, tells DDNews. “We think that aptamers can be developed into a full-offering portfolio of standalone reagents and premade assays that allows researchers to investigate novel and existing targets that were previously inaccessible to antibodies.”
Aptamers represent an emerging market that is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. The synthetic antibodies can be used both in basic research aimed at drug discovery and also in applied research as biosensors for the diagnosis of diseases and detection of small molecules. Currently, there are very limited methods for the detection, quantitation or immunoprecipitation of modified RNA. “Post-transcriptional RNA modification plays an important role in biological processes and is essential for normal central nervous system development,” says Rockland President and CEO Jim Fendrick. “The growth of these life-science tools will enable the scientific community to effectively explore the role of RNA modification in biological development.”
A Phase 1 proof-of-principle project funded by the SBIR grant is Rockland’s first foray into the world of aptamers. Rockland is best known for producing antibodies and antibody tools used in basic research, assay development and preclinical studies. In its new study, the company is developing high-affinity and target-specific aptamers and aptamer-based detection assays for medically relevant modified RNAs. Ultimately, the company intends to offer services that involve profiling RNA modifications and the development of custom-generated RNA aptamers. “We intend to produce reagents for sale and also offer aptamer development services,” says Chimento. “Long term, we think that aptamer technology will complement our existing products and allow us to make a stronger offering to the research community.”
The primary goal of the SBIR-funded project is to develop a set of affinity reagents for detection, quantitation or immunoprecipitation of all modified RNAs discovered in eukaryotic organisms. Rockland will make two unique aptamers that can identify two important modified RNAs, allowing researchers to detect and measure the aberrant RNA forms from the normal pool of RNAs in cells. A secondary aim is to perform validation of the two novel aptamer reagents and RNA profiling assays in mice.
The Phase 1 study, which began last October, is expected to span nine months. The first step of the study involved the creation of aptamers through a technique called systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment. The aptamers that are created are being tested for functionality in a number of experiments. Rockland expects these aptamers to have specific activity against the modified RNA targets, but they will need to be screened with specific bioassays.
If the Phase 1 study proves successful, Rockland plans to pursue a Phase 2 SBIR grant to support a plan to generate a suite of highly specific aptamer reagents. “We plan to focus on developing aptamers that bind to nucleoside modifications,” says Chimento. “All synthetic antibodies and associated assays will be available in our catalog and accessible for research community. We plan to establish service for profiling RNA modifications and for the development of custom generated RNA aptamers.”
Rockland has received SBIR funding for more than a half-dozen projects in the last decade, says Chimento. “We have a very active research program that generally focuses on our core strength of antibody reagent and assay development,” he tells DDNews. “Aptamers are not a big stretch for us, as they have similar activity as do antibodies. Using our strong collaborative network, we are able to quickly address each of the technological challenges in pursuing aptamer research.”