As two of the founding fathers (or perhaps father and son) of proteomics, Norman and Leigh Anderson have worked steadily over the past 25 years to expand the reach of proteomics technology — by automating the identification of proteins through 2D gel electrophoresis and mass spectrometry, and more recently, by developing a protein and antibody array platform.
Their departure from Large Scale Biology Corporation marks a new chapter in the Andersons’ work in the field. Although nominally they remain consultants to the company, the duo is off to explore new applications of proteomics, which at the minimum will include applying proteomics to the defense against bioterrorism.
The Andersons are coy about how exactly this might work, but in an interview with ProteoMonitor last week Norman Anderson said that he and his son have been working on how to apply the technology they’ve developed over the years to identifying potentially virulent proteins thus far uncharacterized in the laboratory. If these proteins are identified and expressed before they can be used as bioweapons, the theory goes, researchers could develop therapeutic antibodies — vaccines of sorts — that could protect or treat those affected in case of an attack.
“We decided that proteomics and other fields were going to take really new directions, and we wanted to be part of those,” said Anderson, referring to his and his son Leigh’s decision to resign from their positions as chief scientist and chief scientific officer at LSBC, a decision announced June 4. Anderson added that while still at the company, he co-authored a paper, currently in press, describing in general terms how proteomics could be used to develop vaccines against potential bioterror agents. “What we wanted was a free hand to explore some things, including a few things in this paper,” he said.
In an interview with ProteoMonitor in late March, Anderson laid out more explicitly the motivation for investigating how proteomics could address bioterrorism: “Rather astonishingly, we now believe, but must prove, that it is technically feasible to physically isolate a previously unknown human pathogen, characterize and sequence it, and produce viral subunit proteins in quantity for a subunit vaccine in as little as six weeks,” he said at the time.
How to put these ideas into practice remains an open question. Anderson said there are several potential vehicles for advancing the research, including through another company, a non-profit research foundation, or through academic channels. In a conference call June 5 to discuss LSBC’s staff and spending reductions, however, John Fowler, LSBC’s president, said the company was also considering whether to pursue this line of research, depending on whether funds become available through a homeland security bill currently making its way through the corridors on Capitol Hill.
LSBC Ploughs Ahead
In the meantime, Vacaville, Calif.-based LSBC is continuing its efforts to find revenue-generating activities for the proteomics and other research programs underway at the company. This has not been an easy goal to accomplish, as Fowler admitted in an interview last week. “We have in the last few months reevaluated our business model, because we weren’t signing the number of deals we expected,” he said. Although he declined to elaborate on how exactly the company had shifted its focus, Fowler added that LSBC was looking to concentrate on programs with more immediate potential for generating revenue.
“We continue to have interest [in our programs], and if anything I would say it’s increasing,” Fowler said. “But the issue we faced was that we had so many things going on, and [we have] a finite amount of cash. From our standpoint we thought it would be prudent to pare back in some areas to make sure that we have plenty of runway in front of us to keep moving forward on the important projects that we have.” LSBC will continue its efforts to develop a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma vaccine and stem cell growth factor, its proteomics program, and its biomanufacturing facility in Owensboro, Ky., he said.
In the near-term, Fowler said the company’s proteomics facility in Germantown, Md. would play a role in LSBC’s internal project to develop the stem cell growth factor formulation, a mixture of several thousand proteins that spurs the growth of adult stem cells through an unknown mechanism. Examining samples of treated tissue with the company’s automated 2D gel and mass spectrometry platform could help LSBC researchers identify the specific proteins in the formulation responsible for the therapeutic action, he said.
In addition, the company will continue to use its proteomics platform to study disease-associated tissue in hopes of identifying markers and potential therapeutics. LSBC has tissue acquisition programs with outside collaborators, including researchers at the University of South Florida and the Stanley Medical Research Institute, as well as internal drug development programs centered around central nervous system disorders and cardiovascular disease.
Anderson: Proteomics Biz Model Has Problems
How much the Andersons will contribute to LSBC’s ongoing activities, however, is still up in the air. Fowler declined to detail his expectations for their participation, except to say they remain consultants to the company. Norman Anderson remained similarly vague about his involvement with LSBC. “We’re major stockholders; that always plays into the picture,” he said.
But Anderson added that the general expectations for how proteomics would contribute to drug discovery have so far failed to materialize. “It could pan out the way everybody expected, but there’s a lot of uncertainty on the part of the pharmaceutical firms, because many of them feel they got burned by genomics,” he said. “They’ve got too many genomicists on board.
“We feel that proteomics has got to be rethought, and Craig Venter, I think, has come to the same conclusion,” Anderson added. “The people at GeneProt are groping their way in a similar direction. The business model everybody started out with has problems.”