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Activiomics Looking to Move into Clinical Biomarker Research, Raise $13M in Funding

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Having validated the performance of its mass spec-based TIQUAS system for the identification of protein biomarkers in clinical samples, proteomics firm Activiomics is now aiming to step up its biomarker development efforts.

The firm is looking to both add to its internal biomarker pipeline, which is currently focused primarily on breast cancer, and to expand its service business to include collaborative companion diagnostic research, CEO Kevin FitzGerald told ProteoMonitor.

To support these efforts, Activiomics is looking to raise around £8 million ($12.8 million) from a variety of sources including venture capital firms, FitzGerald said. It expects to close an initial round of roughly £3.5 million to £4 million by the end of the year.

The firm is currently funded by IP Group, a UK-based investment company that specializes in commercializing technology from the country's universities. Activiomics was founded in 2009 as a spin-out of London's Barts Cancer Institute.

The company's TIQUAS platform is based on Thermo Fisher Scientific's Orbitrap Velos instrument and allows for label-free proteomic and phosphoproteomic profiling. According to FitzGerald, one of the key differentiators of the system is its proprietary software, which, he said, enables rapid, label-free "cross-referencing of peptide sequence information with quantitative information," allowing the firm's researchers to quickly identify peptides that are either differentially expressed or regulated under various conditions.

To date, Activiomics has used its platform primarily for research in cell lines, working with drug developers including GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech to investigate the effect of particular compounds on cell or tissue proteomes and phosphoproteomes. Last month, the company announced it had extended its contract research agreement with Japanese pharma firm Kyowa Hakko Kirin to study the effect on cellular signaling of several KHK lead compounds.

With the recent validation of its platform in frozen breast cancer tissue samples, though, Activiomics is now looking to shift its focus towards clinical biomarker development, FitzGerald said.

"We have always had it in our minds that we wanted to use the technology for the quantification of phosphoproteins in cancer tissue and other disease tissue," he said. "And we've now succeeded in doing that."

Another development that FitzGerald said has given the company confidence to commit more fully to the biomarker business is the recent demonstration of the TIQUAS platform's suitability for proteomic analyses of formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue – a common clinical sample storage format.

The shift toward the use of clinical samples involved a "gradual optimization" of the entire TIQUAS system, from the upfront enrichment steps through to the mass spec and data analyses, FitzGerald said.

Moving forward, the company plans to continue to focus its internal biomarker development efforts on breast cancer. It also hopes to initiate research into markers that could be used for guiding treatment of rheumatoid arthritis patients and into markers for another undisclosed cancer, FitzGerald said.

One potential issue facing Activiomics as it moves into use of clinical samples is the sample requirements of mass spec-based platforms like TIQUAS. According to FitzGerald, the system can work with sample sizes as small as hundreds of micrograms of proteins. However, in the case of certain clinical samples, this much material might not be available.

By way of comparison, reverse phase protein arrays, which are frequently used in similar research tracking phosphoproteomic changes in response to drug treatment, can work with sample sizes in the tens of micrograms.

While TIQUAS is mass spec-based, Activiomics plans to shift to immunoassays for validation of potential markers that it discovers using the platform, FitzGerald said.

Despite the various efforts afoot to bring mass spec-based protein quantitation to the clinic, the company believes that antibodies will be "the gold standard of detecting biomarkers in a clinical setting for some time in the future," he said. "One thing we would be a little bit nervous about doing would be to add platform risk on top of the discovery risk of the biomarker [development]."

With this in mind, Activiomics has "committed to establishing a recombinant antibody platform so that we can generate high-quality antibody reagents" for measuring potential biomarkers in retrospective clinical validation studies, FitzGerald said. As one of the founding scientists at biotech firm Cambridge Antibody Technology (acquired by AstraZeneca in 2006), FitzGerald – who joined Activiomics last month – brings significant experience to the company in this area.

Currently, he noted, Activiomics plans to license any markers discovered internally after taking them through retrospective clinical validation.

"We're a fairly young company, and while I can envision our business model evolving going forward, I think that in the current funding environment, we anticipate that certainly for our first cohort of biomarkers we will be looking to licensees at the point at which we establish clinical proof of concept in retrospective clinical validation studies," he said.

"As the company grows, there is the possibility that it could obtain enough funding to take our biomarkers through to prospective trials and launch diagnostic kits," he added.

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