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String of Recent Deals Suggests Ag-Bio Market an Opportunity for Chemical Proteomics Firms

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While chemical proteomics has traditionally focused on pharmaceutical work, several recent collaborations suggest that the field is establishing a foothold within agricultural research, as well.

In the last two months, the biotech firms Evotec and Caprotec have between them inked three collaboration agreements for use of their chemical proteomics technologies in ag-bio projects.

In July, Evotec entered a deal with Dow AgroSciences under which the company agreed to provide its quantitative chemical proteomics services to support research into compounds in development at Dow. Also in July, Caprotec entered a collaboration with Bayer CropScience to use its chemical proteomics technology to profile the interactions of Bayer compounds with the proteomes of various plant systems. That deal followed a previous collaboration between the companies launched in December 2011.

In August, Caprotec signed another ag-bio deal, this one with Syngenta. That deal similarly called for the company to use its chemical proteomics tools to profile the interaction of certain Syngenta compounds with the proteomes of plant systems of interest.

Chemical proteomics generally refers to technologies that use synthetic small molecules to screen target proteomes, allowing researchers to capture and purify proteins binding to these small molecules and then analyze them – typically via mass spec. The technology has proven useful in pharmaceutical research for applications including target validation and unraveling drug modes of action following phenotypic screening.

Ag-bio firms also have need for such services, making the field "fertile ground for using chemical proteomics" Caprotec CEO Jonathan Turner told ProteoMonitor.

"For quite a lot of compounds [under investigation], they don't have a clear mechanism of action, so that is one reason why they would need this kind of technology," he said.

Another, he added, is that ag-bio companies are "looking more and more to translate biochemistry into [genetically modified organism] development. And so for that reason they need to know the proteins that are underlying the [target] mechanisms of action."

Chemical proteomics' strength as a tool in phenotypic screening makes the approach particularly interesting for the ag-bio business, said Dirk Ullmann, Evotec's executive vice president, lead discovery.

"This is because in [ag-bio] the nature of their screening is typically a phenotypic one," he told ProteoMonitor. "They typically have plants growing in greenhouses and the read-out is the action that a compound has in a plant – is it growing or not growing, and so on."

Often, though, "at this point in time they have no idea what the real target is" that the compound is working on, Ullmann said. "So they would like to understand what the real target is, because then they can narrow down the [compound's] mode of action. And this can be done with chemical proteomics approaches."

Berlin-based Caprotec was founded in 2007 by Hubert Koester, inventor of the multifunctional small molecule Capture Compounds that are the basis of the company's chemical proteomics platform. Hamburg-based Evotec, meanwhile, obtained its chemical proteomics capabilities through its 2011 acquisition of Kinaxo, a chemical proteomics firm spun out of the lab of Max Planck Institute researcher Matthias Mann.

Chemical proteomics' move into the ag-bio space makes sense given that, essentially, ag-bio firms "are producing drugs," Technical University Munich researcher Bernhard Kuster told ProteoMonitor.

"Not drugs for use in people, but in the field," he said. "And these drugs will have targets" that chemical proteomics can be used to elucidate.

Kuster was formerly vice president, analytical sciences & informatics at chemical proteomics firm Cellzome, which was acquired in 2012 by Glaxo SmithKline (PM 5/18/2012).

Kuster noted that Cellzome never applied its technology to the ag-bio business, but, he said, "chemical proteomics in general is on the upswing" and the notion of using it for agricultural research "certainly has merit."

According to Ullmann, Evotec's move toward the ag-bio space has gained steam in the last two to three years. Since announcing the Dow AgroSciences deal in July, the company has received new interest from several ag-bio firms and is now "actively discussing [chemical proteomics work] with a number of these organizations," he said.

One potential advantage of this business as opposed to the pharma industry, Ullmann said, is that companies tend to be more interested in pursuing novel targets due to the lower levels of risk and investment involved.

"To embark on a novel target in agriculture is much easier because you just need to show a biological effect on the organism -- you don't need to worry about side effects and so on," he said.

Pharma companies "are less willing to embark on novel targets," while "in [ag-bio] companies are looking for real novel targets, and there are lots of interesting and new enzymes that have no impact on pharma but which can impact agricultural thinking," he added. "So we think [chemical proteomics] can be at least as powerful or more powerful in agriculture [as in pharma]," he said.

Ag-bio's more streamlined target development process also means that chemical proteomics firms are able by working in this area to more quickly validate their platforms, Turner said.

"The beauty of the [ag-bio] industry is that development cycles are shorter, so from our perspective it's good to do deals with them because it means we can validate our technology more quickly," he said. "Chemical proteomics is a science that undoubtedly has a very high predictive capacity, but it is a young science, and it needs to be validated. And the shorter the cycle you have between identification of a target and the application of a chemical influencing that target in the organism, the better we can do validation."

Ag-bio might also represent a better growth opportunity for chemical proteomics than pharma, Ullmann suggested, noting that global food trends like the increased consumption of meat would likely place increasing demands on agriculture efficiency in a way that could prove beneficial to the ag-bio business.

"I think these companies are in quite good shape," he said. "They have 10 percent growth rates, typically – at least the big ones. This will probably continue over the next few years, and that means a good opportunity for organizations like [Evotec] to work with these companies."

The flip side of that coin, however, is that while ag-bio offers the prospect of solid growth and new opportunities for chemical proteomics, these firms' margins are typically narrower and their R&D budgets smaller than in pharma, Ullmann said.

"It's much more difficult for these companies to release significant – say, million dollar – budgets [for a chemical proteomics project]," he said. "They are not prepared to do that immediately."

Nonetheless, he added, "you never know what may happen in the future if this really becomes a breakthrough technology and companies appreciate it more and more."

At the moment, Ullmann said, compared to pharma, ag-bio "budgets are smaller, but growth is higher. So it's a decent opportunity."

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