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NMR Vendor Varian Invests in Metabonomics Software Firm Chenomx

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Mass spectrometry isn’t the only high-throughput platform working its way toward the diagnostics realm with the help of bioinformatics software. Chenomx, a developer of metabolic profiling software for nuclear magnetic resonance instruments, plans to follow in the footsteps of proteomics and genomics firms that are moving their technology from the research environment into the clinic.

Last week, the Edmonton, Alberta-based startup won a vote of confidence from NMR maker Varian, which made an equity investment in the company. Neil Taylor, president of Chenomx, was unable to disclose the amount of the stake, but said it was a “minority investment” in the 20-person firm.

Varian helped co-develop Chenomx’s Eclipse metabolic profiling software, and last fall the companies entered into a distribution agreement that gives Varian exclusive distribution rights for the software, but allows Chenomx to market it directly for use with other NMR platforms. Chenomx is Varian’s only software distribution partner, and the only software company that it has invested in.

The core applications for NMR-based metabolic profiling are safety, efficacy, and toxicology studies, but Taylor said the Varian investment will help Chenomx develop a future version of its software that “would extend this application into more routine diagnostics, both for medical research and routine medical diagnostics.” Taylor noted, however, that the diagnostics market is a “long-term goal.” A Varian spokeswoman said that while “there is work going on” regarding clinical applications of metabolic profiling using NMR, “the results of that work are probably several years out.”

Along with its NMR platform, Varian offers data acquisition software, called VnmrJ, which provides some initial processing of the data, but Chenomx’s Eclipse software adds a new level of analysis to the platform by correlating the concentrations of low-molecular-weight molecules with health or disease state. Chenomx has developed a “library” of standard chemical signatures that Eclipse uses to identify compounds within the sample. The software then correlates metabolic responses with pathology, toxicity, drug efficacy, and genetic information.

Metabolic profiling — often termed “metabolomics” or “metabonomics” in post-genomic lingo — is not a new technology, but Taylor said that it’s seeing a bit of a resurgence in the biological community due to a heightened interest in high-throughput approaches, as well as systems biology projects that are integrating metabolic data with genomics and proteomics information. “I always felt that genomics and proteomics were overrated in a sense: There was a lot of excitement, and not quite as many practical applications as there could have been,” he said. “And I believe we’re taking this next step of looking at the final results of the genomics blueprint, or the proteomics machinery, and now we’re looking at the final results of that. … So this could be a name that sounds like a new thing, but it’s kind of a better way of doing what people were doing already.”

As a diagnostic method, metabolic profiling could offer advantages over genomics- and proteomics-based approaches, Taylor said, “Because it not only indicates what your propensity to a disease is, but it indicates what is really happening [in the biological system] — a combination of your propensity, your disease and health state, and whatever foods and drugs that you’ve ingested will show up in your signature.”

— BT

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