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Maine Manufacturing Snags $150K NSF Grant to Develop Protein Array Platform


By Justin Petrone

Maine Manufacturing, a three-year-old technology company, has been awarded a $149,499 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to help it develop a new microarray platform that could be used to diagnose and treat cancer.

Entitled "Novel microarray platforms for detection of rare molecules in complex mixtures," the grant started Jan. 1 and expires June 30. It is the first NSF award for Maine Manufacturing.

While only a few years old, the Sanford-based firm has a lengthy array technology pedigree. Maine Manufacturing last year absorbed GE Whatman's protein microarray group after GE decided to relocate its Maine operations overseas and eliminate 275 positions. After negotiations, Maine Manufacturing acquired certain assets from GE, as well as the array team, which was also based in Sanford, according to Chief Scientific Officer Michael Harvey.

As part of that deal, which closed last year, Harvey, a principal scientist with GE Whatman, joined Maine Manufacturing as its CSO. The privately held firm is now committed to "translating identified market needs into prototypes and then producing supplies for laboratories on a high-volume level," and the engineering of a new microarray surface is part of that effort, he told BioArray News this week.

"The focus of our Phase I grant is to create a new microarray surface that has improved properties to allow for detection of rare biomolecules," Harvey said. According to Harvey, the limitations of existing microarray surfaces include "platform-based optical interferences and limited or ineffective binding capacity for biomolecules."

These flaws constrain the sensitivity of binding reactions mounted on existing microarray surfaces, and Harvey maintains that arrays with enhanced sensitivity will permit the detection of rare biomolecules that may be involved in cellular regulation, cellular differentiation, and disease mechanisms.

Such chips could include reverse-phase protein arrays, which he said are important for understanding cellular changes in a variety of disease states. "In cancer, for example, lysates from small numbers of tumor cells can be spotted on a surface and then interrogated with many different antibodies to elucidate protein expression patterns in these tumor cell populations," Harvey said. "The power of these techniques will be significantly enhanced by having a platform able to support the most sensitive assays."

To achieve its goals, Maine Manufacturing has cast a nitrocellulose film on a track-etched support to form a composite surface that will "maintain the high protein-binding capacity of nitrocellulose on an optically transparent carrier," Harvey said.

According to the grant abstract, by casting nitrocellulose on an optically transparent porous track-etched membrane, the resulting surface will "maintain some properties of both starting materials." By varying the pore structure of the track-etched membrane, Maine Manufacturing will also optimize the resulting membrane's ability to capture complex protein mixtures and permit sensitive fluorescent detection.

Additionally, the company plans to directly modify the track-etched membrane with functional silanes to provide chemical groups permitting covalent coupling of proteins and nucleic acids. "This approach should prove beneficial to maintain the optical compatibility of the original track-etched structure," and "may be optimal for antibody arrays where the capture molecule can be immobilized at a sufficient density to provide a sensitive assay surface," the firm states in the abstract.

Harvey said that feasibility studies to test the surface are already underway. "We hope to show that it will quantitatively capture proteins in complex mixtures while permitting sensitive fluorescent detection," he said. "These two characteristics in combination will lead to a more sensitive platform than currently available."

According to Harvey, microarrays continue to "play an increasingly important role in bioscience research, disease and drug discovery processes, as well as in human and animal diagnostics" and "provide parallel processing tools required to extract multiple values from small amounts of precious clinical and research samples."

He said that Maine Manufacturing's project will ultimately "provide the basis for new diagnostic and prognostic tools to help understand the proteins present in tumor cells" and added that the firm's technology "could offer new methods and devices to make interrogation of one's own cancer possible resulting in personalized treatment methods."

The Maine Event

While Maine Manufacturing's deal with GE Whatman occurred three years after Maine Manufacturing was established, the histories of the firms are connected. Maine Manufacturing was set up by Craig Cunningham, who previously served as engineering manager and chief engineer with Whatman. GE acquired Whatman in 2008 (BAN 11/4/2008).

Since its founding, Maine Manufacturing has occupied a 100,000-square foot facility in Sanford, which includes more than 30,000-square feet of clean room and laboratory space, according to a company spokesperson. In addition to production of protein microarray products, Maine Manufacturing works in product development and high-volume production of filter paper, membranes, and injection- and blow-molding plastic products, the spokesperson said.

According to Harvey, GE decided several months after it acquired Whatman that it would close one of Whatman's largest manufacturing facilities in Sanford. "In an effort to mitigate the economic impact to the area and to rapidly add significant volume to its business, Maine Manufacturing approached GE with an offer to keep parts of the business being relocated in Maine," he said. Maine Manufacturing eventually entered into an agreement to acquire "certain assets" from the Whatman division of GE Healthcare, effective Jan. 1, 2010.

As part of that deal, Maine Manufacturing acquired Whatman's portfolio of arrays containing protein content, as well as all microarray printing and processing equipment from GE, according to its spokesperson.

The products include a line of focused protein arrays, including a Serum Biomarker Chip for cancer-related biomarker screening, and the CombiChip, which was designed to screen markers related to autoimmune diseases. The CombiChip received CE marking as an in vitro diagnostic in 2006 (BAN 11/4/2008).

Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioArray News? Contact the editor at jpetrone [at] genomeweb [.] com.

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