Hesperos, a virtual company founded by James Hickman, a professor of chemistry, biomolecular science, and electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida, is planning to use its first issued patent as a starting point for developing a microfluidic cell-based assay system.
The patent, US Patent 7,266,457, “High-throughput functional genomics,” was awarded two weeks ago to the company, which Hickman founded seven years ago.
Hesperos, which translates from the Greek as “Venus in the sky,” is a holding company for Hickman’s IP.
Now that Hesperos has been awarded the patent, Hickman said the company will partner with UCF to jointly develop the technology. “I was waiting for the patent to be awarded, and then I have agreements with UCF to be able to let the university use our IP,” said Hickman.
He described the agreement as basically a “reverse of tech transfer.” Hickman said that he expects those negotiations to conclude very shortly, but declined to comment further.
The technology developed by Hickman and his team forms the basis of a new high-throughout electrophysiological assay designed to determine a compound’s acute and chronic effects on cellular function.
The work is similar to technology that Hickman’s team at UCF is developing with the support of a three-year, RO1 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The NIH grant funds the development of a database of different classes of toxins and their unique effects on the shape of action potentials, Hickman said. “We will also be developing the ability to detect the same signals that we get with high fidelity using the patch-clamp electrodes on the arrays,” he said.
Hickman went on to say that once the company does that, it plans to validate the technology by studying compounds that have been previously evaluated in order to demonstrate that it can get the same results more quickly and more cheaply.
“As soon as we demonstrate that, which I think we can probably do in less than two years, people will be very interested,” he said.
Please Don’t Kill the Cell
The ‘457 patent describes technology whereby “electronics surface chemistry, biotechnology and fundamental neuroscience are integrated to provide an assay where the reporter element is an array of electrically active cells.” Hickman said that the system analyzes the effect on ion channels by drugs or toxins.
The technology also relies on algorithms that analyze the differences in action potential peak shape to determine which gene pathway is affected by a test drug or compound.
“We then couple that technology with the idea that we can put cells on top of microelectrode arrays — planar microelectrodes versus patch-clamp microelectrodes,” said Hickman. By monitoring microelectrodes that way, the cells remain viable, he said.
“People would kill to have an assay that is not in vivo but can give them some idea of the general function of a particular gene.”
“This allows us to look at temporal effects. Since my research has shown that we can keep neurons alive for up to three months, we can now look at chronic versus acute effects,” said Hickman.
The cells are not going to die if they are placed on top of electrodes that are embedded in a surface, so they can be hooked up to microfluidics in order to create a high-throughput device.
“Once I have the final embodiment of this device, I could put in a stream of compounds as the assay is running, look and see what they have done to the cell, and then develop targets that way. Based upon physiology, I do not have to know what my target is per se, because I’ll know how each molecule affects each gene pathway,” said Hickman.
He added that the device would be useful in the area of proteomics. “People would kill to have an assay that is not in vivo but can give them some idea of the general function of a particular gene. That is what I think the real money maker will be on this patent and for the company.”
According to Hickman, if investigators could transfect genes into a cell to determine what pathways are affected without knowing the structure of the protein they encode, targets to genes could be developed because they know what pathways are affected.
Gilberto “Ybet” Villacorta, a patent attorney in the Washington, DC, area and a business associate of Hickman’s, told CBA News that the company expects the technology to eventually “be useful in place of animal studies.” He said that this substitution would provide a cost advantage, but could take another three to five years to validate.
Hickman said that he has filed additional patents relevant to this technology with the US Patent and Trademark Office, but he declined to comment further.