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Italian Biotech Axxam Providing Cell Lines to NCGC for Molecular Libraries Screening Effort

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Italian drug-discovery firm Axxam is providing the National Institutes of Health's Chemical Genomics Center with a selection of cell lines and cell-based assay protocols for use in the NCGC's high-throughput screening program, Axxam said this week.

Though the agreement lacks any direct financial benefit for Axxam, it could represent an entry point for the company into the US academic and research institute market because the NCGC is the "hub" for the Molecular Library Screening Centers consortium under the NIH's Roadmap for Biomedical Research plan.

Under the terms of the agreement, Axxam — which considers itself a drug-discovery partner first and a reagent provider second — has begun providing NCGC with purified cell lines and assay protocols gratis to conduct luminescence-based screens against undisclosed targets of interest implicated in various diseases.

However, the strictly reagent-oriented agreement could lead to bigger things for Axxam in the form of a collaborative partnership — and presumably financial benefits — in which Axxam would provide custom assay development services related to NCGC cellular targets of interest, Lia Scarabottolo, Axxam's head of cell biology, told CBA News.

"We have also discussed [with NCGC] the possibility to generate novel cell-based assays with particular interest to them," Scarabottolo said.


"The idea is to now send them these cell-based assays, because they urgently needed them … but we are also discussing the possibility of starting a real collaboration."

Axxam already has a collaboration in place with one undisclosed US biopharmaceutical firm, and this is a service-based partnership.

"We are not just a reagent provider," she added. "This was our first contact with the NCGC, and we thought this was a unique opportunity to start an ongoing collaboration with the NIH and the US. The idea is to now send them these cell-based assays, because they urgently needed them … but we are also discussing the possibility of starting a real collaboration. We are a real drug-discovery partner."

Another benefit of the deal from Axxam's perspective is the fact that the NCGC is actively evaluating screening instrumentation platforms and other assay technologies, and may be able to provide the technologies with invaluable public validation.

Jim Inglese, director of biomolecular screening and profiling at NCGC, declined to comment specifically on the Axxam partnership, but reiterated a blanket statement to cover all of the NCGC's private collaborations.

"The NCGC is forging collaborations with developers of assay, instrumentation, and software technologies to evaluate and identify those which will enable the NCGC in its mission to identify and develop chemical probes for the academic community," Inglese wrote in an e-mail to CBA News.

"The NCGC is committed to expanding assayable genome space, and this expansion will frequently require new technologies," Inglese's e-mail continued. "To the degree that companies share our commitment and have developed assay platforms to do that, we are interested in testing the new technologies in our own hands, and in making those results — good or bad — available to the research community via PubChem."

Examples of notable NCGC private collaborators thus far include Kalypsys, GeneData, Teranode, TTP Labtech, Odyssey Thera, and DiscoverX.

Glow Versus Flash

Scarabottolo said that the cell lines Axxam has donated thus far have luciferase-based reporter genes; however, they do not use Photina, the advanced photoprotein for flash-based luminescence assays that the company recently developed and signed an agreement with German instrumentation manufacturer CyBio to co-market the assays for drug discovery (see CBA News, 2/15/2005).

"The cell-based assays that we have [provided] them so far produce luminescence, but a glow luminescence," Scarabottolo said. "It was quite clear, at least when we visited them, that they only had instrumentation to detect glow luminescence."

Photina, on the other hand, is a calcium-indicating photoprotein that works using flash luminescence, "so you need instrumentation that can simultaneously inject the agonist and perform the measurement," Scarabottolo added. "But so far, the NCGC has not had this kind of instrumentation available."

According to Inglese, the NCGC is currently using PerkinElmer's ViewLux glow luminometer.

Scarabottolo said that she thinks the NCGC is interested in eventually adding flash luminescence technology such as Photina to its toolkit. Axxam only began developing the current set of cell lines and protocols for NCGC last April, when the center was just beginning to evaluate potential technologies.

This could be good news for PerkinElmer, Molecular Devices, Tecan, or Axxam collaborator CyBio, all of which have flash luminescence readers capable of high-throughput screening. CyBio and Molecular Devices in particular have been working with Axxam to validate assays using Photina on their respective instrument platforms; while PerkinElmer and Tecan have expressed interest in doing so, Axxam said last year. It is unclear whether NCGC is currently evaluating flash luminometers.

According to Axxam, the Photina protein is so sensitive and produces such a large signal, that it is possible to record the signal with essentially any flash luminescence reader on the market.

"We are strongly custom-oriented, so in this sense, we can configure the assays based on the needs of the final user," Scarabottolo said. "We really have the ability to adapt the assay to different types of readers."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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