Life sciences tool vendor Biolog last week said that it will partner with researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center on a $1 million phase II Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to further develop Biolog’s cellular analysis technology.
For Biolog, based in Fremont, Calif., the collaboration allows it to leverage facilities and expertise surrounding pathogenic bacteria at Texas A&M that it lacks in house. Texas A&M benefits primarily from the research funding, and may stand to generate licensable intellectual property, though Biolog would likely not be the licensor of such inventions, a company official said.
Under the terms of the agreement, Biolog will collaborate with the laboratory of Lacy Daniels, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences in the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, to develop methods for testing bacterial pathogens using Biolog’s Phenotype Microarray technology.
The Phenotype Microarray technology tests a cell line against thousands of conditions — or drugs — in a highly multiplexed fashion in multiwell plates. It could be considered a form of high-content screening that can be performed in high throughput, as well. Biolog sells Phenotype Microarrays for a variety of bacterial, fungal, mouse, and human cells; and also markets a readout device called OmniLog for use with the arrays.
Biolog said that the principal goal of the STTR project is to adapt the PM technology for so-called “fastidious” bacterial groups, which require special conditions for culture and testing. Biolog will focus on agents of lung, cutaneous, and tissue infections, such as Legionella, Nocardia, and Mycobacterium; important colonizers of the colon and vagina, such as Bacteriodes, Clostridium, Lactobacillus, and Escherichia; and microaerophilic gastrointenstinal pathogens such as Helicobacter, Campylobacter, Arcobacter, and Wolinella.
Meantime, Daniels’ lab will work to develop methods for using the PM technology to specifically study the metabolism and physiology of Mycobacterium, Barry Bochner, Biolog’s chairman and CEO, told BTW last week.
“The big reason we wanted to do it this way was to work on Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” Bochner said. “There is a lot of interest in Mycobacterium, and at Biolog we can work on some of the so-called fast-growing Mycobacteirum species. But for the slow-growing ones — and in particular the more hazardous ones like [M. tuberculosis] and [M. leprae], with the biggest interest healthwise being [M. tuberculosis] — [Daniels] has worked much of his career with Mycobacterium, and he has access to biosafety facilities that we wouldn’t have access to.”
An undisclosed portion of the $1 million STTR grant will go directly toward supporting Daniels’ work on Mycobacterium, which Bochner said “is very much up the alley” of Daniels’ basic research interests.
The phase II STTR grant is a continuation of a previous phase I grant, awarded in 2004, under which Biolog successfully developed its PM technology to address the human pathogens Campylobacter and Helicobacter. Biolog’s academic collaborator on that project was Douglas Berg, a professor of molecular microbiology, genetics, and medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Bochner said that it is a bit unusual for a company to switch academic collaborators between phases I and II of an STTR grant.
“[Berg] had expertise on Helicobacter,” Bochner said. “We basically completed that work in phase I. In the second phase we wanted to work on some new bacteria, and that wasn’t his area of interest or expertise, so he graciously bowed off the grant and allowed us to switch to a different collaborator.”
According to Guy Diedrich, vice chancellor for technology commercialization in the Texas A&M Office of Technology Commercialization, such a scenario may be unusual for an STTR grant, but is fairly common at technology transfer offices.
“If it’s something they discover, they own it; if it’s something we discover, we own it; and if it’s something jointly discovered, then we both own it.”
“Ultimately what you want to do with these early-stage technologies is to find the very best resources in the country regardless of affiliation,” Diedrich told BTW. “In this case, it sounds like the very best for this particular phase of the research was located here, so that resulted in the formation of the relationship.
“We actually see that quite a bit,” he added. “It’s about finding a core competence in a certain area, and an individual with that expertise may be at a different university than what you’re working with. So it may be unusual, but I can’t say it would be unusual in a [technology-transfer] office at a university the size of Texas A&M.”
Because Daniels’ lab will be working with an established technology platform and only building out its capabilities, it is unlikely, but not unfeasible that it will develop new intellectual property. Even if it does, it may not necessarily be IP that Biolog will seek to license back from the university, Bochner said.
“I think there is a clause in the agreement that addresses that,” Bochner said. “In this case I don’t anticipate that there is anything we would be licensing from them. But there is some legal verbiage that addresses that issue.
“If it’s something they discover, they own it; if it’s something we discover, we own it; and if it’s something jointly discovered, then we both own it,” he added. “But it wasn’t so much that they are going to develop some sort of technology that we’re going to want to license that we partnered with them. It’s that [Daniels will] be able to apply our technology to this important group of bacteria that we wouldn’t have the capability to do by ourselves.”
Biolog has been a major STTR and Small Business Innovation Research grant award recipient for its PM technology, and has collaborated with a number of academic institutions over the past several years, including Johns Hopkins University, Washington University, Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories.
It is unclear whether Biolog has licensed any technology related to the PM technology from these partner institutions, as Biolog does not disclose its in-licensing deals.
“We handle these agreements on a case-by-case basis,” Texas A&M’s Diedrich said. “That’s the most interesting part of these engagements — it’s not always certain what new intellectual property will be developed, and that’s what’s so enticing about it.”
Whether Daniels develops new IP or not, Diedrich added that Texas A&M will not stand in the way of making the innovation available to the commercial market.
“That is ultimately our job — to create an environment where innovation can flourish,” he said. “We enter into all kinds of different agreements with different companies and different universities. Whatever is best for getting that technology out to the marketplace in a fair and equitable way, we pursue.”