This article has been updated from a previous version, which incorrectly referred to Luceome Biotechnologies as Luceome Biosciences in the headline.
Recent University of Arizona spinout Luceome Biotechnologies is hoping to tap into federal Small Business Innovation Research funding to help it build out its kinase-screening technology for drug discovery, the husband-wife co-founders and owners of the company said this week.
Luceome is hoping that expanding its currently available panel of kinases to include all of the most commonly investigated molecules will help it land its first screening contract or potential licensee within a year.
If not, the startup, which has thus far been solely internally funded, will likely need to go beyond the SBIR mechanism to seek private financing, its founders said.
Luceome is based on research conducted by Indraneel Ghosh, chair and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UA College of Science. Its technology platform is based on luciferase fragment complementation, which uses split luciferase enzymes to detect molecular interactions.
Ghosh and his wife, Reena Zutshi, co-founded Luceome last year to use the technology to screen for small molecules that are able to disrupt certain molecular interactions, particularly those involving kinases, in whole-cell lysates.
Zutshi previously served as vice president of operations for ImaRx Therapeutics, which is developing therapies for vascular disorders, and which went public in 2007. She is Luceome's president and CEO, and Ghosh will serve initially as chief scientific officer before transitioning into a scientific advisory role at a later time.
Using their own funds and working with the University of Arizona Office of Technology Transfer, Ghosh and Zutshi secured an exclusive license to the technology from UA. In exchange, the university received an undisclosed up-front payment, royalty considerations on future products, and equity warrants that it can choose to cash in at a later date.
"They have the right to exercise those warrants when they choose," Zutshi told BTW this week. "They can do it if the company is doing well. It's in lieu of having huge upfront payments on an exclusive agreement. They balance it by having potential ownership down the road so it's not onerous to the new company."
In order to have freedom to operate, Luceome also needed to obtain a license from Washington University, which owns certain patents related to luciferase fragment expression.
"This is a typical non-exclusive license that allows us to operate in this area without infringing," Ghosh said. "These are split luciferase enzymes, which form the basis of many of the technologies we are building to measure small-molecule inhibition of molecular interactions. One type was developed there, but there are other flavors of this."
Luceome's innovations, for which patents are pending, involve methods for conducting the luciferase fragment assays in high throughput and using them to detect small molecules, "which has not really been done before," Ghosh said. "There is a method patent as far as speed goes, as well as new variations of this for detecting small molecules, especially kinases."
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Zutshi said that an advantage of Luceome's assay platform, which it has dubbed Kinase Seeker, is that it is luminescence-based as opposed to fluorescence-based, which means "you can eliminate many false positives and negatives, as a lot of drug candidates are themselves fluorescent."
Further, the technology uses whole-cell lysates, which allows users to monitor if a molecule binds other cellular components besides its intended target; and it is homogeneous, which reduces cost and enables researchers to conduct assays in high throughput.
Ghosh and Zutshi declined to provide details of either of its licensing agreements; however, Zutshi said that the UA deal was larger than the WU deal, which she said is typical when considering exclusive versus non-exclusive licenses.
With licenses to its core technology in hand, Luceome is now seeking customers. These potentially include smaller drug-discovery outfits or academic labs – "mostly smaller public companies that are not served well necessarily by large screening companies," Ghosh said – wishing to contract Luceome for its kinase-screening services; as well as larger companies that might be interested in licensing the technology in-house for their own discovery work.
"We want to actually sell the product upfront as a service, and see what level of interest there is," Ghosh said. "And then we want to go from there, where we might be able to license pieces of it to companies like [Life Technologies] and PerkinElmer that do this on a large scale."
The company currently has an assay panel of 20 to 30 validated kinases. However, Ghosh and Zutshi said that initial talks with potential customers have revealed that they need to beef up this number to attract interest.
To that end, Luceome has applied for a pair of SBIR grants. One of those is currently under review, and the other was filed this month, Ghosh said.
"If we got money, it would be [used] to ramp up the different product lines available," Ghosh said. "There are some 500 different types of kinases, and we have maybe 20 or 30 of them."
Zutshi said that adding another 30 or 40 kinases – in particular certain kinases that are commonly investigated in drug-discovery research – could help Luceome land customers.
"We should be able to actually get some clients and get the ball rolling within the year," she said. "We are just working on getting the kinase panel to the point where we are competitive with others out there. We have gone beyond proof of concept and have many validated kinases on our panel right now."
Luceome has thus far eschewed private funding, despite interest from some private investors. "We wanted to keep it this way [because] you can lose control [of the company] very quickly," Ghosh said.
And although Luceome is betting it will receive at least one of the two SBIR awards, "we really need to be selling things to somebody within a year," Ghosh said. Otherwise, it will have no choice but to seek private investment to keep afloat.
If it should score customers within the year, Luceome has leased lab and office space in the Tucson area where it should be able to operate for a couple of years, Ghosh said.