Two years after switching its technology focus, drug-discovery firm Calibrant Biosystems last week announced it will use its Gemini platform with the Cleveland Clinic to identify protein networks linked to an aggressive form of brain tumor.
The deal, which could further validate the Gemini technology — Calibrant’s sole research platform — aims to identify protein networks and novel therapeutics involved in gliobastoma multiforme.
Founded in 2001, Gaithersburg, Md.-based Calibrant has survived strictly on funding from its founders, grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Small Business Innovation Research program, and other sources of cash that will not dilute the owners’ stake in the company, which excludes venture capital.
Two years ago, faced with the realization that its two main microfluidics-based technology platforms under development had little market potential, Calibrant shifted its attention to the Gemini platform, a tool for discovering novel protein targets. The Cleveland Clinic deal is part of the company’s strategy to continue developing it.
When Calibrant was first formed, its founders, Cheng Lee and Don Devoe, both from the University of Maryland, were primarily interested in developing high-throughput protein-separation technologies with disposable plastic microchips. The platform they developed for that was called Orion. Eventually, the company also created technology for coupling 2D PAGE with MS, called Cepheus [See PM 05/06/05].
But the company found interest in both systems to be lukewarm, calling for a new turn in its technology focus, Calibrant officials told ProteoMonitor this week.
“The previous model simply didn’t have the same value proposition as the strategy that’s been developed in the last couple of years,” said Michael Salgaller, who was appointed COO of Calibrant earlier this month. “We also see what’s happened particularly with the genomics situation where you have excellent technologies that over the [past] decade generated a lot of data, but at the end of the day didn’t demonstrate to people … how you can make money from it.
“Some of the initial technologies of the company were excellent at generating information … but then what do you do with that information?” he added
Instead, the company, which currently employs eight scientists and engineers, put its full weight behind the Gemini platform, which had been developed in parallel with Orion and Cepheus. Gemini is used internally by Calibrant and is not available commercially. The Orion and Cepheus platforms have been shelved, and no other technologies are being developed, company officials said.
According to Calibrant’s website, the Gemini allows for “comprehensive and quantitative protein profiling of isolated and homogeneous cell populations from both fresh and archival formalin-fixed tissues.”
Brian Balgley, who this month was promoted from the company’s director of proteomics to CTO, said that Gemini encompasses “everything from sample preparation through the shotgun analysis to the data processing [and] data mining.”
Typically, in its work, Calibrant will start with laser capture microdissected tissue. The processed samples are then separated using the Gemini platform, which uses capillary electrophoresis as a first-dimension separation followed by nanoflow liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry by electrospray ionization for final separation and protein detection.
“Some of the initial technologies of the company were excellent at generating information … but then what do you do with that information?”
Data processing is done using both publicly and commercially available software as well as custom-built tools, including the Proteome BiNDR database. Data mining is the final step of the platform.
“It’s a very highly resolving platform for analyzing trace amounts of proteins from laser capture microdissected tissues, which allows us to really focus on the homogeneous population of cells,” said Balgley.
According to Balgley, the ability of Gemini to handle small samples is one feature that differentiates it from other technologies. “We’ve developed methods that preserve the sample to the maximum extent possible while making it compatible with the separations.”
Lee, the company co-founder and current CEO, said that Gemini is particularly compatible for analysis of formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissues.
FFPE tissue often contains clinical-outcome information, Lee said, but it is “close to impossible to perform a genome-wide analysis for these clinical specimens. But we have optimized the sample-prep method allowing us to do shotgun proteomics coupled with Gemini on a scale no one [else] can achieve.”
As part of its partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, Calibrant will use the platform to do a retrospective study to identify proteins and networks of proteins that respond to the drugs erlotinib and temozolmide in combination for the treatment of the over-expression of epidermal growth factor receptors, which have been associated with many cancers.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Calibrant also has partnerships with the Yale School of Medicine to find potential drug targets for ovarian cancer, and with the University of Southern California on liver cancer targets. As yet, Calibrant has no commercial partners, though Salgaller said there have been conversations with undisclosed “major” drug companies.
Because the company has no commercial products, it has no sales figures. During the last five years, Lee said, it has received about $11 million in funding from various sources.
Calibrant has received no venture capital funding, and for now it is focusing on tapping into other similar forms of capital before it seeks VC money, said Salgaller.
“We certainly wouldn’t be adverse to angel or venture-capital interest at this time, but we’re positioned well to continue to move forward with our major programs while we’re getting more exposure to those particular communities,” he said.