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Vanderbilt Licenses Label-Free Optical Biosensor Tech to Spinout Molecular Sensing

Molecular Sensing, a Vanderbilt University spinout developing biosensors for basic biological research, has exclusively licensed intellectual property from the school covering a biosensor technology based on back-scattering interferometry, the company said last week.
The announcement of the deal coincides with the publication of a paper in Science demonstrating the ability of the technology to detect label-free molecular interactions in solution, including single-protein folding, with a high degree of sensitivity – a result that, combined with the technology’s relatively simple design, may bode well for its eventual use in point-of-care diagnostic and pharmacogenomic applications, officials from the company said.
Under the terms of the agreement, Molecular Sensing, based in Montara, Calif., has licensed a portfolio of issued patents and patent applications – both US and international – from Vanderbilt. The company has the right to commercialize technology based on the patents worldwide across all markets, Scot Weinberger, president and CEO of Molecular Sensing, told BTW last week.
Weinberger declined to provide additional financial details of the agreement. However, Janis Elsner, associate director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Enterprise Development at Vanderbilt, told BTW that the deal was a “typical university licensing agreement to a startup company” in that Vanderbilt is receiving equity in the firm and royalties on product sales.
The biosensing technology was developed by Darryl Bornhop, a professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University who also co-founded Molecular Sensing and serves as its acting chief technology officer.
Bornhop, who was previously involved in starting up two medical device companies, began developing the technique while he was a professor at Texas Tech University. Bornhop said that he and Weinberger had been friends for several years, and when Bornhop continued the development of his technique at Vanderbilt, he and Weinberger decided to take the plunge and form a startup company around it.
“We sort of danced a little bit with some of the larger entities, but my experience has been that a technique that is revolutionary or so novel, as is the one we are bringing into the commercial sector, usually doesn’t fare very well at a big company,” Bornhop said.
Weinberger, whose credentials include a stint as director of research at Ciphergen Biosystems, had a “great deal of familiarity with the space, with biosensors, protein sequencing, and proteomics, and in the end, it just made sense,” Bornhop added.
Vanderbilt, perhaps prescient regarding the commercial potential of Bornhop’s technology, inked an inter-institutional agreement with Texas Tech when Bornhop transferred to Vanderbilt that conferred the responsibility for commercializing all of Bornhop’s inventions to Vanderbilt.
Although Texas Tech remains the owner, “under an agreement we have the right to manage the patent prosecution and licensing of the portfolio along with the new developments by Professor Bornhop in his lab,” Vanderbilt’s Elsner said.
“I think this is becoming a little more common when you have faculty that move from one institution to another,” she added. “It sort of makes sense if they’re going to continue in a line of work to have the place where they are located manage the IP. It is not atypical for universities among themselves to license to one another and come up with sharing formulas.”
Elsner declined to disclose specific details about the arrangement between Vanderbilt and Texas Tech, but said that Vanderbilt’s decision to pursue such an agreement was based primarily on Bornhop’s track record as a prolific researcher and inventor.
“The expectation on the part of Texas Tech was that he would continue to invent here in this same area, and certainly after our several meetings with Darryl we came to the same conclusion,” Elsner said. “I think it certainly is not something we would do for every faculty member that transfers. We have to take a look at it on a case-by-case basis.”
In Bornhop’s technique, back-scattering interferometry – a sensitive measurement technique that is used in everything from astronomy to communications to optical testing – is adapted to a microscopic liquid-filled chamber containing a mixture of biological molecules.
The instrument that Bornhop developed and Molecular Sensing is refining has a relatively simple design comprising a helium-neon laser, a CCD detector, a mirror, and a glass microfluidic chip.
According to Weinberger, in addition to the simple optical train, benefits of the platform include ease of use; and the fact that it does not require molecular labels. In addition, he said, the system enables sensing of molecular interactions in an in vitro fluid environment that more closely mimics the in vivo environment. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the paper published in the Sept. 21 edition of Science, the technique is highly sensitive.

“We sort of danced a little bit with some of the larger entities, but my experience has been that a technique that is revolutionary or so novel, as is the one we are bringing into the commercial sector, usually doesn’t fare very well at a big company.”

Weinberger said that competing label-free sensing technologies on the market include those from Biacore (now part of GE Healthcare), which was an early pioneer in the field and commands a large portion of the market; and waveguide-based surface biosensors, such as those marketed by Corning, Axela, and BioForte.
“It’s a very crowded space,” Weinberger said. “The difficulty is that label-free technologies really have not broken out, and that’s because of the requirements of immobilizing the analyte to the surface, and the inherent low level of sensitivity that they have.
“While we certainly are going to be competitive with the Biacore devices, as well as all the other waveguide-based surface biosensors, these companies are struggling to really break out,” he added. “Biacore has taken two decades, and they’ve built a really good following and have huge brand loyalty, but in essence, they really have scratched the surface in terms of the market potential to sell products into the label-based assay world.”
Molecular Sensing will first take aim at the basic research and assay development market, which, for label-free biosensors, Weinberger estimates is around $200 million. In addition, he said that the sensitivity and ease of use of back-scatter interferometry as compared to other notable platforms will allow the company to break into the label-based assay market, which he estimates is approximately four to five times greater, hovering around $1 billion.
Further down the road, Molecular Sensing believes it can bring the platform into the diagnostic market, in particular point-of-care or near-patient diagnostics, which Weinberger estimates to be around $5 billion, excluding glucose testing. “From that, cardiovascular, endocrinology, urology, and oncology tests account for about $1 billion, while infectious disease takes up the rest,” he said. “We see ourselves playing in infectious disease and select other [near-patient] markets such as cardiovascular and oncology.”
Bornhop told BTW that he has been cautious in his discussions about the use of the technology for diagnostics, but is “certain” that it will be a viable technology in that space. “It does have the potential to really enable some aspects of point-of-care treatment” he said. “It’s sensible to imagine it being built in a device that sits on a physician’s desk or even a miniaturized instrument that is deployable and can be used in the point-of-care setting.”
In any case, if Molecular Sensing can successfully bring even a basic research tool to market – the company plans to sign early-access partners by December and intends to formally launch the product next summer – the payoff to Vanderbilt and Texas Tech could be tidy.
“I would tend not to project what the potential revenues to Vanderbilt would be in a deal like this, other to say that the market sectors that could be impacted are in the several billion dollar range,” Elsner said. “I believe it is a fair deal for the university and our hope is that the company is wildly successful in the marketplace, in which case, the return to Vanderbilt would have significant impact, in both licensing revenue and other areas of collaboration.”

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