Metabolon and the University of Michigan plan to co-develop and commercialize diagnostics for prostate cancer metastases based on biomarkers discovered by UM researchers, the company said this week.
According to Metabolon, the broad agreement includes a number of activities to help progress Metabolon's Prostarix line of prostate cancer diagnostics. This includes an exclusive license that UM awarded Metabolon to use markers for prostate cancer aggressiveness that were discovered in a previous collaborative research project with the school.
The agreement includes another sponsored research deal with the laboratory of Arun Sreekumar, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Michigan, aimed at better understanding the role the biomarkers play in the onset of prostate cancer aggressiveness, Metabolon said.
It is unclear what other activities are encompassed by the agreement. A Metabolon spokesperson declined to provide additional details. Financial terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.
Metabolon said that the intellectual property covering biomarkers for prostate cancer aggressiveness will provide the company with a “significant competitive advantage in the field of prostate cancer diagnosis,” and will serve as the basis for its Prostarix diagnostic for prostate cancer metastasis, which the firm expects to launch in late 2009.
The prostate cancer-aggressiveness biomarkers were discovered under a research collaboration begun sometime during the early 2000s — the exact date is unclear — with the laboratory of Arul Chinnaiyan, director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology and professor of pathology at the university.
Chinnaiyan discovered the biomarkers using Metabolon’s technology that the company said is used to detect small-molecule biomarkers from numerous chemical classes and various sample matrices, including plasma, serum, urine, CSF, cell extracts, and tissues.
In an e-mail to BTW, a Metabolon spokesperson said that the research collaboration was “a catalyst to our being asked to join” the National Cancer Institute's Early Detection Research Network, an NCI initiative established in early 2000 to identify and validate cancer biomarkers for early cancer detection. The research project between Metabolon and UM also received an unspecified amount of funding from the Early Detection Research Network program.
Metabolon also said this week that Chinnaiyan will serve as an advisor to the company and will join its scientific advisory board. However, future sponsored research will be conducted with Sreekumar, an assistant professor who also works with Chinnaiyan at the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology.
“If you can cover most of the bases with four or five markers, or you have something that is really specific, it is much easier to license. The problem is that a lot of these have to be in a panel.”
The Metabolon spokesperson told BTW that “both researchers are close collaborators and work jointly on many projects, including their work with Metabolon.”
According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the most common malignancy other than skin cancer found in men in the United States: One in six men is expected to develop the disease during his lifetime, and more than 185,000 are newly diagnosed with it each year.
The disease is diagnosed and monitored using a prostate specific antigen test. Once patients are diagnosed, there are several options: active surveillance, androgen deprivation or radiation therapy, or prostatectomy. These options are based on the likelihood the tumor will become metastatic and spread. However, predicting the likelihood of metastasis has traditionally been very difficult.
Metabolon is betting that the biomarkers for prostate cancer aggressiveness discovered at UM are specific enough to more accurately assess the chance that the disease will spread throughout the body.
"As the second major cause of cancer-related death in the US, prostate cancer creates unique challenges to accurately predict the likelihood of metastasis,” John Ryals, chief executive at Metabolon, said in a statement. “Metabolon continues to work with leading researchers like those at the University of Michigan to develop easy-to-use diagnostic tools to better understand aggressiveness and metastatic potential of prostate cancer and to help doctors and patients make critical treatment decisions.”
According to Robin Rasor, director of licensing at UM, it is generally much easier for a university to license a biomarker technology if it is either very specific, or if it fits into a small panel of biomarkers that can be easily licensed from just one or a handful of institutions or companies.
“Like all universities we have a lot of biomarker technology,” Rasor told BTW. “If you can cover most of the bases with four or five markers, or you have something that is really specific, it is much easier to license. The problem is that a lot of these have to be in a panel.”
She said that if a company has to pay royalty rights to a number of different academic institutions or companies, it becomes more difficult to consummate a deal. “The question is: When does it become economically unfeasible for a company?” Rasor said.
This presents challenges for even a large pharmaceutical or biotech company, but a smaller firm such as Metabolon must be particularly careful when reviewing the specificity of particular biomarkers before it decides to bring them in house.