Seattle-based start-up NanoString moved one step closer to commercializing its molecular bar-coding system with a recent $4.3 million cash infusion from venture capital investors.
The firm began operations earlier this year and is commercializing technology that came out of work done in the lab of Leroy Hood at the Institute of Systems Biology. Krassen Dimitrov, who was director of the microarray facility at ISB, invented the NanoString technology and now serves as chief scientific officer of the company.
NanoString, which holds ex-clusive rights to the technology from ISB, had existed for several months on seed funding, part of which came from Carl Weissman, president of Accelerator — an investment group founded by ISB, three venture capital firms, and a real estate company looking to help start-ups affiliated with the institute get off the ground. Accelerator, however, did not participate in this round of funding because the amount NanoString was seeking was too large for the fund.
Though the Series A round the company completed in August fell short of the initial goal of $8 million, it will provide the funding NanoString needs to ramp up operations and development of its gene analysis tool. According to the firm, its technology is expected to be as much as 100,000 times more sensitive than DNA microarrays and will be able to scan entire transcriptomes in minutes.
“Basically, in principal, the [NanoString technology] will work like a bar code in a grocery store. It’s attached to a probe [made of strands of DNA] that will be able to bind individual molecules and tag them, so that they can be read by a scanner,” NanoString President and CEO Perry Fell told BioArray News. The probe looks like a string of monomeric nanometer-sized labels that are spatially and spectrally separate, which is why the technology is called NanoString.
Fell, who was a co-founder and CEO of Seattle Genetics, expects the technology to provide a significant advantage over current microarray techniques. “What we’re anticipating is that because we’re able to tag individual molecules we’ll be able to get at the relatively low-abundance messages that are potentially going under the radar screen of current microarray technology,” Fell said.
“So, this is digital, not analogue. It’s counting individual molecules rather than relying on relative fluorescence intensities between genes being expressed.”
In an interview with BioArray News last year, Dimitrov said that the NanoString technology had solved the difficulty of labeling associated with microarray technology [see BAN 5/21/2003].
“Our whole technology is the labeling and the identification combined. In every other technology, encoding and labeling are split. In microarrays, the encoding is spatial: The identity of each gene is determined by the x-y coordinates on the array. Then, you have the labeling that gets you the quantity of the sample that hybridizes to the spot.”
Fell said it remains to be seen whether this will be a more cost-effective method than microarrays for gene expression analysis. But he reiterated that the real advance of the technology is the threshold of detection.
The NanoString technology is still in the relatively early stages of development, Fell said, and the firm is “probably a good 24 months away from being able to place some alpha units that would be used to benchmark against current microarray technology.”
The company plans to supply core facilities and other microarray users with the NanoString system to test its efficacy. “Let’s go to the people doing this every day that are the experts and will be able to very quickly assess to what extent we’re able to offer something that is a significant advantage over their current technology,” he said.
Leroy Hood, the DNA sequencing instrument pioneer and president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, said in a press release that the NanoString technology “has the potential to revolutionize gene analysis … and will probably have applications in areas not yet imagined.”
Some of the areas beyond gene expression research that are being contemplated by the firm include clinical diagnostics, forensics, and agricultural research purposes. “Beyond that, the bar codes could be attached to other kinds of molecules as well, such that you could collapse a variety of different assays into a single platform. But we’ve got a ways to go,” Fell said.
One application the bar codes will not be used for is single-molecule sequencing, such as the technologies being developed by UK-based Solexa; Cambridge, Mass.-based Helicos; and Germany’s Genovoxx.
“Our technology is potentially very powerful, but in a very specific area,” Fell said. “It’s not going to be for single-molecule sequencing. It’s only going to be for when you know what your probe is — you’ve got a probe for your target, you know what the target is, and that’s what you’re going out to detect.”
He added, “It’s not the tool for going after new genes. It’s a tool for when you know what targets you’re interested in and you want to be able to find them and identify them in complex mixtures.”
Kirkland, Wash.-based OVP Venture Partners and Draper Fisher Jurvetson of Menlo Park, Calif., provided the recent funding. Each of the venture capital firms also placed a representative on NanoString’s board of directors.