Three months after leaving their senior management positions at Large Scale Biology Corporation to explore “new directions” in proteomics, Norman and Leigh Anderson have now alighted upon their chosen endeavor: Last week the father and son team founded the Plasma Proteome Institute, a non-profit vehicle for guiding industry efforts to discover important diagnostic proteins in human plasma.
The Andersons’ new institute currently exists only in “virtual” form-the organization has a website but currently no funding–but Leigh Anderson, the institute’s CEO, told ProteoMonitor that he and his father have laid out a model for how their institute would function. In the coming months, Anderson said, the two plan to solicit financial and scientific support from public and private sources for a project to identify proteins in plasma useful as diagnostics for disease, much as the SNP Consortium is pinpointing disease-associated SNPs on behalf of big pharma.
“Ideally, one of the things that will come out of this will be the definition of what proteins need to be measured and what methods look like they will work to do it,” Anderson said. “That information will be very valuable to the protein chip platform companies, the antibody companies, etc., in order to help them define what will be a viable commercial product for them.”
To do this, Anderson said he and his father, along with any partners, would need to have access to as many candidate markers as could be assembled, find antibodies or collaborators to generate antibodies to the markers, work with protein chip manufacturers to generate prototype antibody arrays, and then proceed to make measurements with clinical samples to prioritize their disease relevance. “That data is likely to be what's most useful, along with a little bit of know-how that will arise from this, to all of the collaborators,” Anderson said.
Rather than lead an effort to identify therapeutic proteins or druggable protein targets, the Andersons embarked on a quest to find diagnostics because that application of proteomics has been given short shrift, Anderson said. “One of the major issues on the proteomics landscape is that there's a large effort in drug discovery, particularly target discovery, and it seems to us there needs to be an equivalent effort on the diagnostics side,” he said. “It doesn''t have the intense focus [given drug discovery] and it needs to be addressed.”
And the rationale for starting a non-profit institute, he added, arises from the difficulty in bringing the types of diverse technology and expertise required to bring a comprehensive platform for discovering diagnostic proteins under one roof. Although Anderson and his father attempted to tackle the problem while at LSBC, “there are so many pieces [that] it's difficult for one organization to pull them all together rapidly,” he said. “There's a whole variety of antibodies, protein chip platforms, disease states, and samples [to study].”
Anderson stressed that he and his father aren’t restricting their choice of protein detection technology to solid-phase arrays–Luminex's bead-based array system is an example of other technologies with similar applications, he said–but an institutional bias towards solid-phase arrays would not come as a surprise given the Andersons’ experience in developing array technology at LSBC. “We're not fixated on any particular method of measuring a lot of proteins,” he said. We would like to be in a position to help and explore the use of all the different platforms.” In any case, the institute is unlikely in the near term to seek funding to build any facilities or laboratory equipment of its own, Anderson said.
WHAT ABOUT HUPO?
Any description of how the Andersons’ institute would function is likely to elicit comparisons with another non-profit organization: HUPO. For over a year HUPO activists have touted the benefits of bringing public and private research money and expertise together for the general benefit of the proteomics community, but so far have not succeeded in getting specific projects off the ground. Given that the Andersons have decided to establish their own organization, as opposed to working under the HUPO umbrella, it seems likely that their efforts might mimic HUPO’s strategy.
In fact, last January HUPO president Sam Hanash said that the organization would make studying the plasma proteome a key item on its agenda. At a HUPO workshop in April held to nail down details of the organization''s plans, members of the HUPO committee overseeing the plasma proteome project suggested distributing plasma samples to various labs for analysis. But Anderson defended his and his father''s decision to go out on their own, saying that while it is possible that the two groups could work together, an important feature of the institute is its focus. “The main purpose of [the Plasma Proteome Institute] is to set up an entity with a group of people that are focused on actually trying to accomplish these things in as short a time as possible, and it''s sometimes hard to do that through an organization that''s as loose as the HUPO collaboration,” he said.
Hanash, for his part, commented that in general that two organizations pursuing the same agenda could run into problems if they were both trying to obtain funding from the same sources. “To the extent [there are] a myriad of activities in proteomics that need to be tackled, I do not consider having additional non-profit organizations in proteomics to be a detriment,” he said. “On the other hand, if you have multiple organizations all doing the same thing, then it would be a problem as the available resources would be diluted.” But Hanash and Anderson left open the possibility that the two groups could find some common ground. Anderson noted that because his goals overlap in a broad sense with those of HUPO, “[the Plasma Proteome Institute] may turn out to be at least one useful vehicle for achieving what [HUPO wants] to do.”
In the near term, the challenge for the Andersons will be to recruit corporate and public-sector partners willing to pony up the resources to move the Plasma Proteome Institute beyond a mere concept. This may not be easy, given HUPO’s slow progress in bringing public and private funding sources into the fold, but Anderson is confident that a sufficient number of parties would find value in his institute’s mission.
Anderson mentioned large diagnostics players such as Roche Diagnostics and Beckman Coulter as examples of the types of companies he hopes to approach, and he added that the NIH is also “extremely interested” in efforts to discover diagnostic markers for the wider range of diseases.
John Hobbs, a strategic marketing analyst in biological systems operations for Beckman Coulter, agreed that in principle his company would be keen to support efforts to uncover new diagnostics. While he couldn't speak for senior management, “it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that Beckman Coulter would have an interest in something of this type,” he said of the institute''s mission. “Whether it’s an interest at a level of where we’d invest in it or put our name behind it, that would be have to be the subject of a fairly detailed discussion.”