Imagining mass demand for mass spec tissue imaging

With $2.2 million in financing to fund start-up costs, Protein Discovery Inc. in October began offering mass spectrometry tissue imaging services to preclinical researchers.

Lisa Espenschade
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—With $2.2 million in financing to fund start-up costs, Protein Discovery Inc. in October began offering mass spectrometry tissue imaging services to preclinical researchers.
 
"We are very excited to be providing this unique and exclusive service," says Chuck Witkowski, president and CEO of Protein Discovery. "No one else has the right to offer a similar service." Protein Discovery, he adds, is "meeting an existing demand for this service, rather than trying to build a market from scratch."
The company's initial client list for mass spec tissue imaging was referred from Vanderbilt University, where Dr. Robert Caprioli, a professor of biochemistry, developed spectrometric tissue analysis technology that underlies Protein Discovery's service. Although Vanderbilt offered services to "many of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies," says Witkowski, "it's a very difficult thing for both federal labs and universities to do, so that created a tremendous opportunity for us."
 
Protein Discovery's lab open-ed for business thanks to the $2.2 million series B financing led by the Southern Appalachian Fund. Grady Vanderhoofven, executive vice president of Southern Appalachian Management Company LLC, the general partner of the Southern Appalachian Fund, says Protein Discovery's "tissue imaging service allows this company to generate cash today, which is fairly unusual for a company at this stage of evolution."
 
All the equity financing's individual and institutional investors, which include Vanderbilt, are regional, says Vanderhoofven, who is happy that "suddenly here's this company in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, with the potential to be a superstar in the industry."
 
Vanderhoofven notes that Protein Discovery also licensed technology developed by Oak Ridge scientist Thomas Thundat, which separates proteins and other biomolecules and enables simultaneous detection and monitoring of multiple disease markers. Protein Design retained rights from the University of Texas for performing imaging services; Protein Discovery also retained worldwide licenses from Vanderbilt for providing commercial mass spec imaging and developing associated sample preparation products.
 
With medical research in a "molecular age," Caprioli says mass spec tissue imaging enables researchers to gather information on the activity of proteins residing in cells. The technology, he says, "allows you to begin to select out molecular signatures that begin to identify some of these processes." By demonstrating where proteins are in diseased tissue, the imaging technique can show researchers the stage, aggression, and course of an illness. Tissue imaging can find known targets and uncover others, Caprioli says, making it a unique tool for looking at diseased tissue that "brings brand new information that can be collated with other technologies to give us a new view."
 
That new view includes creating pictures of proteins and their locations within tissues without the radioactive labels that radiography requires. The images can show whether drugs reach their intended targets or other organs, like the kidneys. "We know that it can significantly assist in preclinical toxicology studies, in helping to weed out those drugs or drug concentrations that may eventually be rejected," says Witkowski.

Lisa Espenschade

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