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Blackstock Takes Cell Map to Cellzome; Gains Freedom to Scale Up

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AT A GLANCE

Name: Walter Blackstock

Age: 54

Position: Vice President, Technology, and a Founder of Cellzome UK

Prior Experience: Served as Worldwide Director for Proteomics, GlaxoSmithKline. Founded Cell Map Incubator Project within Glaxo Wellcome in 1998 to study protein-protein interactions using mass spectrometry.

In the second of a two-part interview, Walter Blackstock describes why he left Glaxo and his current work at Cellzome.

QWhy move from Glaxo to Cellzome?

AWhen I left GSK I was worldwide director of proteomics, so I had a very good position and I will say at the outset that I have enormously enjoyed working within Glaxo Wellcome and subsequently GSK. I suppose the reason [for moving to Cellzome] is simply that there are certain things I want to achieve and I think I can achieve them faster outside the big pharmaceutical companies. I am of the opinion that pharmaceutical companies will increasingly outsource a lot of high-risk work, simply because even the biggest pharmaceutical company cannot handle all the technologies which are being presented to it. It’s just impossible. They have to make judgments as to what they can outsource and maybe co-develop with people, and what they definitely want to keep in-house. In this case, GSK decided to outsource what we were doing and took a financial interest in Cellzome. They have a commitment to what we’re doing, and they recognize the value. I think it’s just a means of accelerating it more rapidly. From my personal perspective, I regard it as one of the last challenges of what I want to do in my career. I want to attempt to map all the important interactions of proteins in the mammalian system, particularly the human system, and I think we can achieve this.

QWhat are things like at Cellzome?

AIn the space of about 18 months Cellzome has grown to about 100 people, and we have just opened a research operation in the UK. [The company] is based on the EMBL campus in Heidelberg, and also in North London, and we think this is important to attract the widest range of people. In the UK we’re going to specialize in neuroscience because there’s a lot of unmet medical needs [in this area]. There are very few diseases in this area which are simply monogenetic disorders; they’re multifactorial diseases [and] we think we can make some inroads using our approach.

QWhat kinds of instrumentation do you use? The TOF-TOF?

AThe instrumentation is fundamentally of two types. It’s either quadrupole time of flight — most of them are Q-TOFs from Micromass — and then the other type of instrumentation is the ion trap from Thermo. It’s a mix of these two types of instrumentation.

I’m going to wait and see about the TOF-TOF, because I think many of the things the TOF-TOF is offering can actually be done already. The TOF-TOF is positioned as being an incredible leap forward; I’m not convinced of that personally. It’s not like proteomics is waiting at this point for an instrument to take it forward. I have reservations about the TOF-TOF because throughput per se is not what we want at the moment. What we want is the asking of intelligent biological questions and then using the best instrumentation available to answer these questions rather than simply collecting lots of data and hoping sophisticated mathematics will allow us to make some conclusions.

QDoes Cellzome have a stated goal similar to Myriad’s “mapping of the entire proteome”?

AWe have to distinguish between what is doable as a noble scientific challenge and what is doable in terms of being realistic and trying to get a return for investors. Obviously we are focusing on targets which have medical significance. To do all human protein interactions is possible [but] it will take a finite time to do it. I don’t think [Myriad] should assume they will be the only people going after this goal. But the prime goal is to focus on important therapeutic proteins first. One logical step is to take all the proteins which are involved in the world’s best selling drugs and simply re-work them [to] understand more deeply how these proteins work. It’s our suspicion that we will actually find other intervention points that may give you a more effective drug [or] a means of extending patent life. If we have the time we’ll try and round it off and do the lot but that’s a distant goal.

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