Douglas Campbell, the co-founder of Environmental Proteomics, identified his business niche about six years ago when he failed to find a place to buy the antibodies he needed to study how the environment affects photosynthetic apparatus.
“There was nothing if you wanted to get an antibody against photosystem II or rubisco,” said Campbell’s wife and company co-founder, Amanda Cockshutt. “There was maybe one against rubisco in spinach.”
Today, the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, meets a need for antibody tools within the relatively small scientific community that studies photosynthetic organisms and their environment. Though many companies make custom-designed antibodies, they are generally only interested in making the antibodies against one commonly studied species such as mouse, human, or rabbit.
“In plants, you’ll run into a wall pretty quickly,” said Cockshutt. “Let’s face it: There’s just not that many people working on plant antibiotics.”
Cockshutt and her research team use Blast to get the original gene sequences from photosynthetic organisms, then align the protein sequences from up to 7,000 species using MultiAlin, a multiple sequence alignment algorithm from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique.
Much of Campbell’s work is done in lakes, oceans, and marshes, which are home to a variety of photosynthetic organisms. In order to study how changes in the environment such as temperature increases and pollution affect different species during the same period, researchers need to use “global” antibodies, which work in many different photosythnetic species, Cockshutt explained.
In addition to producing these antibodies, Environmental Proteomics also produces pure, quantitated recombinant proteins that can be used as standards in experiments. These standards are important for allowing researchers to definitively measure the levels of protein in their samples.
In the late 1990’s, Campbell, now an associate professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, began collaborating with a Swedish antibody-manufacturing company called AgriSera to produce the antibodies he needed.
Funding for the start-up com pany came mostly from Canadian organizations, such as Mount Allison, the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the New Brunswick Foundation for Innovation, as well as from Campbell and Cockshutt’s own personal funds.
Cockshutt said it is too early to predict how much revenue the company can generate. The company is still in the process of doing market studies and gearing up for marketing, she said.
Campbell’s antibodies are different from other commercial antibodies because they are designed to work across many different photosynthetic organisms.
“These antibodies will recognize [antigens] in organisms from a pine tree to grass to corn to algae to cyanobacteria, and with the same strength,” said Cockshutt, who is currently in the process of submitting paperwork necessary to establish Environmental Proteomics as an incorporated company in Sackville, New Brunswick.
Currently, the company produces six antibodies against core complexes of photosynthetic apparatus. They are against rubisco, photosystem II, photosystem I, ATP synthase, glutamine synthetase and nitrogenase.
“Those antibodies were chosen by my husband because that’s what he wanted to study,” said Cockshutt.
The company’s antibodies work against antigens in a few hundred organisms, including diatoms and dinoflaggelates — organisms which are particularly interesting to the photosynthesis community, Cockshutt said.
“The more species you want to cover, the harder it is and the more design time and money is involved,” Cockshutt said. “If you get a winner, an antibody that’s good, it will recognize that protein in any (photosynthetic) species. If a signal is weaker, it’s because there’s less antigen, not because the recognition is weaker.”
Campbell and Cockshutt are currently working on developing an antibody to study cellular stress in fish.
“With most fish diagnostics, there’s no way to tell if fish are unhealthy and suffering from stress until the presence of a pathogen,” Cockshutt said. “There’s an interest to see whether increases in temperature and pollutants are affecting the levels of stress in fish, especially with Atlantic salmon at declining levels.”
In producing the fish stress antibody, Campbell and his associates will once again work with AgriSera, which began selling Campbell’s first antibody commercially four years ago.
Cockshutt said she has taken over the business side of the com pany. She is currently working on increasing marketing of the com pany’s products, which so far have sold mostly through word-of-mouth.
AgriSera is a small Swedish company that makes antibodies, “and marketing isn’t their strong point,”Cockshutt said.
As one of her first marketing efforts, Cockshutt said she plans to go in a few months to an international photosynthesis conference in Montreal where she will set up a booth to market the company’s products.
“We would like to stay in the fringe field, away from the mammalian and human markets,” Cockshutt said. “What gives us a little bit of a competitive edge is that we not only do the science and the blots ourselves, we also design the peptides ourselves. A lot of people have no clue about how to decide on which peptide to use in the first place.”