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Cognia Earns Phase I SBIR Award to Develop A Protein Catabolism Database Resource

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Backed by a one-year, $100,000 SBIR grant from the National Institutes for General Medical Sciences, Cognia is embarking on the development of a protein catabolism database and software system, its first in-house commercial offering.

Though it was established in 1999, all of Cognia’s revenue until now has been through its marketing agreements with other bioinformatics tools and database companies. It currently holds North American distribution rights for the Transfac transcription factor database and other products developed by Biobase of Braunschweig, Germany.

Cognia CEO David Rubin said that the company is now ready to move beyond its distributor role and into product development. Cognia has hired Harvard Medical School cell biologist Christopher Larsen to head up the protein catabolism database project.

Cognia has also hired several other new employees recently, bringing its total staff to 12. In addition, Christian Burks, vice president and chief informatics officer of Exelixis; Daniel Finley, professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School; and Edgar Wingender, president and chief scientific officer of Biobase, will join Cognia co-founder Vincent Marchesi on the company’s scientific advisory board.

While the importance of protein catabolism — the breakdown of proteins — is well established in biology, Rubin said it is has been largely overlooked by informatics providers because protein technology has not yet caught up to the sophistication of microarray technology.

“We were happy that the NIH funded the project with a small business grant because we knew it was a little bit different,” Rubin said. “But if you imagine that protein chips are coming and all the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars put into that, it makes perfect sense.”

Rubin noted that protein catabolism is a highly regulated process that has been implicated in a number of cancers as well as neurological defects and inflammatory diseases. In Alzheimer’s disease, for example, protein plaques accumulate because catabolism does not occur properly.

The protein catabolism database should also be of interest, Rubin said, because “people are beginning to realize that microarray data only goes so far.” A more complete understanding of protein half-lives and destruction patterns will be necessary before it is possible to make a correlation between expression data and protein levels, he said.

The database system will first focus on the ubiquitin-proteasome pathways, which are important for regulating intracellular protein levels.

By focusing on gene and protein regulation, Cognia hopes to meet the specific research needs of its customers, eventually building up a network of information on other parallel cell biology processes.

“One of the ideas in the field has been if you aggregate a critical mass of databases people will have to come to your site or your company to work with you,” Rubin said. “But if you don’t have a specific point of view as to what problems you’re solving for the researcher, more is not better.”

The company expects to have the database system on the market by the first quarter of 2002.

Rubin is confident that Cognia will be able to take advantage of its current customer base of 22 pharmaceutical, biotech, and agricultural companies as it seeks licensees for its new products.

In addition, several companies are beta testing Biobase’s Transpath database and Rubin expects several sales in the near future.

Cognia recently relocated from Mountain View, Calif., to New York.

— BT

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