Protagen, a Dortmund, Germany-based protein-array firm, has been selected to take part in a German government-funded consortium focused on biomarker discovery that in Protagen’s case will rely on its flagship UNIarray protein chip platform to study Alzheimer’s disease.
The consortium, called NeuroAllianz, is led by researchers at the University of Bonn and backed by an initial three-year, €20 million ($27 million) award from the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education, or BMBF.
Protagen CEO Stefan Müllner said that the funding was awarded through the BMBF’s BioPharma competition, which sought to award €100 million to regional bioclusters throughout the nation.
NeuroAllianz, based in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, draws together researchers from UBonn, the University of Duisburg-Essen, Siemens, German pharmaceutical company UCB, and Protagen. The consortium was one of three selected for funding out of 37 applicants.
Müllner told BioArray News this week that Protagen’s first project, which involves biomarker discovery work related to Alzheimer’s disease, is a larger manifestation of Protagen’s decision to allocate more resources to diagnostics development work following his appointment as CEO two months ago (see BAN 8/5/2008).
“We are focusing more intensively on diagnostics and developing our service business to offer GMP-compliant analysis,” he said. “Diagnostics was not as much of a focus over the past few years.”
Müllner said that the company is now performing “a lot of internal research” to develop a viable diagnostics platform to support projects in several areas of interest, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, prostate cancer, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Part of those ongoing research projects involves its participation in NeuroAllianz. Müllner said that Protagen will initially supply chips for a project led by Jens Wiltfang, an Alzheimer’s specialist and molecular biologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
Wiltfang’s project will focus on using Protagen’s UNIchip platform as a discovery tool for the early-stage detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Protagen’s UNIchip AV-400 array contains 400 different human recombinant proteins,as well as additional proteins for assay control, including proteins from different pharmaceutical important protein classes such as kinases, membrane, signal transduction, and metabolic proteins.
Beyond Alzheimer’s, Müllner said that Protagen is also interested in collaborating with a second NeuroAllianz project whose aim is to identify markers for early-stage detection of Parkinson’s disease. Project leader Christa Müllner, vice-chair of the board of UBonn’s Pharmaceutical Institute, and Alexander Pfeiffer, its chairman, said that Protagen has already done some Parkinson’s discovery work, but that any collaboration will be agreed upon after the project officially starts.
Although the BMBF has earmarked €20 million for NeuroAllianz, funding for the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s efforts must be approved on a proposal-by-proposal basis.
Protagen is ”focusing more intensively on diagnostics and developing our service business to offer GMP-compliant analysis.”
“It’s not guaranteed that the funding will all be approved at once,” Müllner said. “We will have to go through a formal approval process.” He added that this bureaucratic framework will most likely delay the start of the project until February 2009 at the earliest.
A Shift to Dx
Müllner, who formerly served as chief scientific officer at Protagen, replaced outgoing CEO Christoph Hüls in August. Upon taking over the company, he made a strategic decision to focus more resources on diagnostics and moving the company away from an earlier focus on companion diagnostics and drug-development partnerships.
Hüls told BioArray News in January that Protagen’s vision was to offer pharmas a “ready-to-go protein chip-testing tool that they can use to test their clinical samples and in their clinical studies.” At the time, the company raised $1.5 million in venture capital from MIG AG and Co KG Beteiligungsfonds 1 and 3 of Munich; S-Venture Capital of Dortmund; and Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau of Frankfurt to support these endeavors (see BAN 1/22/2008).
This week, however, Müllner described such developmental projects as “opportunistic” business. “You have to be in the right spot at the right time to fit into the development chain of a pharmaceutical,” he said. “It is something we have done and something we can do, but it cannot be followed strategically.”
Instead, the company has set its sights on a number of internal diagnostic programs while hoping to make strategic partnerships that could eventually bring a test to market. To support this initiative, Müllner hopes to secure a new round of undisclosed financing by the end of the year from Protagen’s existing investors.
After it secures that capital Protagen will seek to add personnel with experience in assay development, said Müllner. Though the company has a number of areas of focus, he said that farthest along so far is a test for prostate cancer.
“Our major focus is in the cancer field, though we are also considering other indications that might be of some value,” Müllner said, without elaborating. “The markets for these indications are different and each has its own needs, but we are presently focused on a test for prostate cancer,” he said. He added that the indication could change as different strategic opportunities present themselves.
Protagen already has developed a 350-marker multiple sclerosis chip that was initially marketed to pharmaceutical clients. Hüls told BioArray News earlier this year that the test was developed to help subgroup patient groups before clinical studies to “save our partners time and money” (see BAN 1/22/2008).
Now, Protagen is “looking to work with a strategic partner” in MS to realize the potential of its assay. “We are looking for formal and strategic partners to take advantage of this opportunity,” Müllner said. “As a small company, we need to focus our work first on building our tests.”
Müllner said that Protagen is overall satisfied with its platform and efforts to advance the technology are not at the moment in the cards. Instead, the firm is seeking to accrue “more scientific proof” that demonstrates its reliability as both a research and diagnostic tool.