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UK Cell Array Firm Retrogenix Opens US Office to Serve Growing Pharmaceutical Client Base

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Retrogenix announced this week that it has opened a business development office in Cambridge, Mass., to better serve its US pharmaceutical customers.

Manchester, UK-based Retrogenix offers drug target screening services on an internally developed cell microarray platform. With a focus on target deconvolution – identifying target binding sites for molecules of interest – the company has built up enough of an international presence that roughly half of its revenues are now generated in the US, according to Managing Director Jim Freeth.

"In the past 12 months, most of our business has been with US companies and academics," Freeth told BioArray News this week. Given the interest in the firm's services, he said that Retrogenix aims to "grow that business quickly and to make the most of it" now that it has a US presence.

Freeth is a former AstraZeneca scientist who left the biopharmaceutical company to develop what eventually became Retrogenix's core technology platform. Together with Jo Snoden, who is now executive director of the privately held firm, Freeth established the company in 2008, and it has experienced continuous growth ever since, mostly through its dealings with global pharma companies.

Retrogenix's specialty is target deconvolution – the determination of primary and off-target activities of antibodies, proteins, small molecules, and viruses identified early in the drug discovery process. Often companies identify a molecule that has an effect but are unaware of the exact target site. Retrogenix's technology enables the identification of these targets, supplying its clients with not only information about the mechanism contributing to the molecule's effectiveness, but a target of interest that can become the subject of other candidate molecules.

"It's kind of reverse drug discovery," Freeth said of the firm's approach. "Our customers have the molecules but don't know what the target is," he said. "Our technology has shown incredible success in doing just that, and we are in the fortunate position of having a unique platform that addresses an unmet need."

While Retrogenix describes its platform as relying on cell microarray technology, the firm actually makes the arrays by spotting DNA of interest and growing human cells on top of the spots. The cells then incorporate the DNA, producing human cell surface proteins. Currently, Retrogenix can survey about 3,500 of these plasma membrane proteins per slide, about 65 percent of all such proteins. Retrogenix produces and runs the arrays in house and makes the technology available solely as a service.

Freeth noted that one advantage of the firm's approach is that the proteins "need to sit in a human cell to accurately represent what's going on in the human body." By observing these proteins' interactions with test molecules or protein ligands in such a natural environment, the company claims to be able to quickly identify target activity and novel targets.

That capability has apparently been attractive to both pharma and academia. The company on its website lists Pfizer, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Pennsylvania among its clients, although it acknowledges that most of its customers have preferred to not disclose their relationship with the firm. Yet many of Retrogenix's clients have research hubs in the Boston area, making it the most logical choice for a US office, according to Freeth, who called the new Cambridge location an "ideal base to maintain our existing relationships and offer our unique service to other innovative drug developers."

He declined to disclose the size of the company's US team or its total personnel. But he said that the US office is likely to serve mainly for business development purposes, and that all technology development and service facilities will remain within the UK. "We'll continue to grow our place in the US market naturally," he said without elaborating.

The Boston-Cambridge area has been a popular location for other European companies looking to establish a North American presence. Most recently SkylineDx, a Rotterdam, the Netherlands-based firm that has developed a number of microarray-based tests, opened a business development office in Boston.

In addition to primary drug target identification and deconvolution, Retrogenix's platform can also be applied to determine the membrane receptors of natural protein ligands, peptides, and live viruses, creating new opportunities for drug and vaccine development, according to Freeth.

In particular, he cited a collaboration with researchers at the University of Copenhagen that led to the successful isolation of the specific receptor bound by a known malaria parasite protein associated with severe forms of the disease. The results of that study were published in Nature last year, and the company speculated in a statement at the time that the discovery could "lead to new therapies to combat a form of the disease that kills around one million children per year."

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