Protagen, a German proteomics company, will use the €1 million ($1.5 million) it gained last week through an interim financing round to help it further develop and launch a series of diagnostic protein arrays, beginning with a chip for multiple sclerosis, according to a company official.
Protagen CEO Christoph Hüls told BioArray News that the company plans to use the cash to make the MS chip available to clients in the pharmaceutical industry by the end of the year. He added that Protagen is making progress on other diagnostics for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and prostate cancer.
The venture capital came from existing investors MIG AG and Co KG Beteiligungsfonds 1 and 3, both based in Munich, and S-Venture Capital of Dortmund. The round included a new investor, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, of Frankfurt. The round increased to €5.3 million the amount Protagen has raise in VC cash to date.
Founded in 1997, Dortmund-based Protagen has until recently focused on selling its UNIchip protein array platform to the research market for applications including protein-protein interactions and biomarker discovery.
Last year the company established a US subsidiary in Chester, NJ, putting its North America base close to Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters and the US headquarters of multinational drug makers Roche, Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis.
Before joining Protagen in 2001, Hüls worked for a number of pharma companies, including Aventis, Novartis, and Hoechst. According to Hüls, it is this market that Protagen is most keen to serve with its diagnostic chips.
“We are really going to give them a ready-to-go protein chip testing tool that they can use to test their clinical samples and use it in their clinical studies,” he said.
Protagen’s MS chip is the first in the pipeline and will be available as either a catalog product for use with any open-platform instrumentation or as a service through Protagen’s laboratory. When completed, the array will contain 350 MS-specific markers developed and validated at Protagen.
“We have screened [MS] patients for these autoantibodies and then put the collection together,” he said. “In parallel we have already tested the [MS] prototype against several other autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and dilated cardial myopathy, to show that these are really MS-specific markers.”
“Proteins are not easy to handle.”
Hüls said he believes the chip could be used during clinical trials to stratify patient groups. “In MS there is a need to stratify patients into responders and non-responders,” he said. “Only one-third [of patients] will properly react to [existing] therapies, and it would be nice to know beforehand which patient group will react. We want to go to subgrouping patient groups before studies to save our partners time and money.”
Hüls said Protagen could prime the market for its chips by participating in clinical trials. “We are trying to enter the diagnostics market with these products and that means accomplishing clinical studies with pharmaceutical companies, and in the long term to get a [US Food and Drug Administration-cleared] test to the market,” said Hüls.
When Protagen debuts its protein array, it will be one of a small number of firms with an interest in making protein arrays available as off-the-shelf diagnostics. Other companies that sell protein arrays, including Invitrogen, Whatman, and GenTel Biosciences, serve the research market and count pharmas as regular clients.
But unlike DNA arrays, the concept of moving protein arrays into the clinical environment has been held up by the technology, especially the proteins themselves, which Hüls conceded are difficult biomolecules to make available to the market.
“Proteins are not easy to handle,” he said. “If you want to put 2,000 proteins on a surface you need the right experience to store them and to treat them and to give them the right performance.”
Hüls did not say when the company will seek 510(k) clearance or a CE Mark for the MS chip. But he did say that when that happens Protagen will most likely look for a partner with a global distribution network in place.
“We’ll see what happens when our products are more developed,” he said. “Then we’ll look at the market and see if we can enter it ourselves.”