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Apeiron Biologics Spins Off New Mass Spec Research and Dx Firm Attoquant Diagnostics

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Austrian pharma firm Apeiron Biologics this week launched Attoquant Diagnostics, a subsidiary founded to commercialize and develop the company's RAS-Fingerprint peptide analytics service.

The RAS-Fingerprint product consists of mass spectrometry assays for measuring ten peptides of the renin-angiotensin system, which plays a significant role in regulating processes including blood pressure, water balance, and inflammation.

Currently, the RAS-Fingerprint product is offered as a tool for basic research and drug development, Attoquant CEO Marko Poglitsch –formerly a project head at Apeiron – told ProteoMonitor. He added that the company ultimately hopes to make a version available for clinical diagnostic purposes, as well.

The RAS-Fingerprint service originated as a set of assays supporting the development of Apeiron's recombinant human angiotensinconverting enzyme 2 agent, a molecule that aids the conversion of angiotensin I to angiotensin-(1-9). Apeiron licensed that agent in 2010 to GlaxoSmithKline, which is currently running phase II trails investigating its usefulness in treating patients suffering from acute lung injury.

Additionally, Apeiron is developing biologics to treat diseases and disorders including neuroblastoma, melanoma, and inflammation.

Given its focus on drug development, the RAS-Fingerprint service wasn't a natural fit for Apeiron's business model, Poglitsch said. And so, this week the company spun off Attoquant as a vehicle to commercialize the product.

Attoquant uses a Waters Xevo TQ-S triple quadrupole instrument to measure the peptides that make up the RAS-Fingerprint panel. The company uses a fairly standard nano-LC-MS/MS workflow, Poglitsch said, noting that its proprietary sample preparation process is the key to the product.

"We have a solid phase extraction procedure that is very efficient in removing [non-target] substances from plasma or tissue samples," he said. The company processes between 0.5 and 1 mL of plasma per sample, from which it gets "a very peptide-enriched and sample matrix-depleted fraction we can inject into the mass spectrometer," he added.

Using this workflow, which, Poglitsch noted, the company is currently working to automate, it can quantify certain of the target peptides at levels as low as one picogram per mL.

Apeiron turned to mass spectrometry as a platform for quantifying the RAS peptides due to the cross-reactivity challenges inherent in measuring them by immunoassay, Poglitsch said.

"When you think of the chemical structure of angiotensins, the angiotensin peptides are all quite similar," he said. "That similarity leads to a very high degree of cross-reactivity of the antibodies that are used in the antibody-based quantitation assays like ELISA or [radioimmunoassay]."

Poglitsch estimated that so far roughly sixty percent of demand for the assay has come from customers in basic research — "people setting up animal experiments and wanting to know how certain treatments affect the [renin-angiotensin] system in different organs or in plasma," he said.

The remaining customers are mainly biotech and pharma firms, he said — "institutions trying to develop new approaches for interfering with the renin-angiotensin system in order to use it in cardiovascular disease treatment."

Additionally, Poglitsch said, Attoquant hopes to move the RAS-Fingerprint panel into the clinical diagnostics space where it could be useful for identifying or monitoring a variety of cardiovascular diseases.

He acknowledged, though, that this would be a long process, and one for which the company might seek an outside partner.

"There are many possible ways for us to go," Poglitsch said. "You can [meet] all the regulatory requirements in house, but this, of course, is very laborious and expensive. So we are also thinking about partnering with other laboratories to get the RAS-Fingerprint readily available for clinical diagnostic purposes via outlicensing our technology."

Quest Diagnostics already offers mass spec-based clinical testing of angiotensin I as part of its plasma renin activity assay for differential diagnosis of hypertension and monitoring treatment of patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Attoquant's RAS-Fingerprint panel, however, offers a more comprehensive picture of the renin-angiotensin system, Poglitsch said, noting that "it simultaneously screens for the activity of all enzymes involved in angiotensin metabolism by measuring the levels of endogenous angiotensin metabolites."

With Attoquant having just launched, all revenues for the test thus far have technically been Apeiron's, and, Poglitsch said, he is not able to discuss them. He did note, however, that Attoquant had no immediate plans to raise outside funding but instead intended to operate on revenues from the RAS-Fingerprint service – a plan that he said "looks quite promising at the moment."

The company has patents pending for its solid-phase sample prep system and for "ex vivo analysis of the renin-angiotensin system," Poglitsch said. He added that it also has "design protection" on the RAS-Fingerprint graphs it uses to display the data generated by the assays.

While the RAS-Fingerprint product is currently the company's main focus, it is also developing assays for other clinically relevant peptides including vasopressin and natriuretic peptides, Poglitsch said.

In addition to support from Apeiron, the company has also received funds from the Technology Agency of the City of Vienna and the Austrian Research Promotion Agency. It currently has five employees.

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