A new biotechnology company - Peakadilly - has been set up in Belgium to provide molecular diagnostic tools to guide the development of new drugs. The company maintains that the tools will make drug development more efficient, effective and economical, writes Phil Taylor.
Peakadilly has been formed by the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and Ghent University in Belgium, and will also focus its attention on using biomarkers - identified using proteomics - to help doctors detect diseases sooner and make sure that patients only receive treatments that can benefit them.
"Today, it takes an average of €800 million and about 12 years to develop a new drug," noted the company. The bulk of this cost is tied up in time-consuming and expensive clinical trials, and it can be disastrous if products fail to show efficacy or safety towards the end of this testing process. Peakadilly aims to identify biomarkers that can act as surrogate endpoints in studies, allowing companies to see much sooner whether their drugs are working as hoped.
The analysis of the effect of a drug on the proteome enables researchers to understand which protein or proteins drugs act upon. Until recently, however, there was no efficient way to study the proteome systematically. Pioneering research under the direction of Joël Vandekerckhove (the scientific director of a VIB research department at Ghent University) has yielded a technology that, for the first time, enables thousands of proteins to be analysed in a systematic way.
The new company will be led by CEO Koen Kas, who was a member of VIB's technology transfer team and fully involved in the development of the platform. He has previously worked at biotech companies Tibotec, Virco and Galapagos Genomics.
He told DrugResearcher.com that Peakadilly's technology is unique, allowing thousands or even tends of thousands of proteins to be identified from a biological sample. This is a tenfold improvement on rival technologies, and also has the advantage of being more sensitive and having a broader dynamic range -proteins can be distinguished even if they are present in dramatically different quantities.
Moreover, the technique allows researchers to see how proteins are being processed and activated in response to a stimulus, such as the administration of a drug.
The trick is a kind of 'tagging' approach, in which the first peptide at the amino terminal of a protein is chemically modified and sequenced. This tag does away with the need to sequence the whole protein, and serves as a near-unique identifier. Kas noted that bioinformatics studies have suggested that even if applied across the entire human genome, genetic variability means that only a handful of proteins would be identical in this first peptide.
In essence, the platform relies on the isolation of all proteins in a blot, followed by chemical modification, a chromatography step and read-out using high-sensitivity mass spectrometry. The system can be adapted to look for a range of different proteins classes: for example, it can be modified to identify all phosphorylated proteins, or all those that contain methionine, noted Kas.
Peakadilly will apply this proteomics technology to identify specific proteins and protein profiles that are related to a disease or the activity of a candidate drug. Then, armed with this knowledge, Peakadilly will develop the biomarkers that will underpin its testing products.
The technology underlying the platform was first invented in 2001, and since then the research team and the VIB have already secured R&D collaborations with three biopharmaceutical companies, bringing in funding to the tune of €2 million. One of the collaborations is in the drug discovery arena, while another focuses on a project in preclinical development and the third is for a clinical candidate.
It is a key advantage of Peakadilly's technology that it can be used on blood, and other biological fluids. Blood samples are routinely used for diagnosing a number of diseases but the current techniques obtain only a limited amount of information from the sample. Peakadilly's biomarkers should make it possible to detect diseases more quickly, giving treatment a greater chance of success.
"It is notable that not one single serum diagnostic has been launched onto the market in the last two years," said Kas, adding that this points to the fact that current technologies have been taken as far as they can go. Peakadilly can now advance diagnostics to the next level, effectively bringing 'pharmacoproteomics' to doctors and patients.
And this focus on the proteome is crucial - DNA and mRNA testing cannot reliably predict how an organism responds to a drug, he said - only specific measurement of proteins can do that. Peakadilly intends to focus on cancer, and will forge partnerships for projects in other therapeutic categories.
Peakadilly will start out in the VIB bio-incubator, located in the Technology Park of Ghent University in Zwijnaarde. The company expects to convert its pilot partnerships into full-blown collaborations, and this should provide interim funding.
Meantime, the first diagnostic kit based on the platform - used to test response to an already-marketed oncology drug - could be on the market by early 2005.