Scientists at two research centers in Belgium have started a new biopharmaceutical company that focuses its biomarker-discovery platform on a technique developed in-house that identifies amine-terminal peptides.
“We really think we have such a unique way to look at proteins — it’s a niche that other companies don’t have,” said Koen Kas, the founding CEO the company, named Peakadilly.
The key trick to Peakadilly’s technology is that peptides are identified by their amine terminus before being sequenced by a highly sensitive mass spectrometer machine, Kas explained. By taking only the N-terminal peptide, rather than the 25 to 50 peptides typically generated by protein cleavage, the complexity of the mixture is greatly reduced, and the profile from mass spectrometry is much clearer.
“If you take all peptides generated by cleavage, the peptides become so crowded on the mass spec that they interfere with analysis,” said Kas. “By taking only the N-terminus, you reduce complexity, but you keep all the proteins present.”
Peakadilly was founded in August by scientists at Ghent University who developed the anime-terminal technology, and scientists at the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology who aim to industrialize the technology.
The company seeks to raise €7 million to €8 million ($8.8 million to $10.1 million) during its first round of funding.
Based in Gent, Peakadilly is currently funded by large pharma companies with which it has research and development collaborations, and by the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology, an academic institution also known as VIB.
The name Peakadilly stems from the fact that the company looks at mass spectrometry data peaks and also at HPLC peaks in the process of making biomarkers, Kas said.
“By looking to beautiful peaks we aim to make biomarkers which are the consumables of big pharma,” he said.
Once a unique amine-terminal peptide is identified, the peptide is synthesized with isotopically labeled O18 so that it is a little heavier than its normal counterpart. The synthetic peptide can then be compared to the natural peptide to quantify how much of the natural peptide is present in a sample relative to the synthetic peptide.
Peakadilly is initially focusing on identifying biomarkers for cancer. According to Kas, it has already identified a candidate biomarker for lung cancer. Details about the biomarker will be released next year, after it has been developed further, Kas said.
Currently, Peakadilly has established pilot deals with undisclosed pharma companies to tackle three different phases of biomarker development — discovery, pre-clinical, and clinical phases.
In pre-clinical experiments, Peakadilly scientists will compare the entire preotome from serum samples of animals treated with drugs and animals not treated with drugs. In the case of humans, samples from diseased patients will be compared to non-diseased patients, and diseased patients who respond to a drug will be compared with diseased patients who do not respond to a drug.
“It’s nice that the collaborations are in different phases so that we can have an opportunity to validate the entire [company] platform,” said Kas.
Once a biomarker or set of biomarkers has been identified, the information will be turned over to Peakadilly’s pharma partner. Rights to any diagnostic tests developed out of the biomarkers will belong to Peakadilly.
To validate that a biomarker is relevant to a certain disease, Peakadilly’s scientists look at mice and human serum to see if the same biomarker is relevant in the two species.
“Our feeling is that if [the biomarker] is conserved between both mice and men, then we have high confidence that it’s relevant,” said Kas.
Kas said he has been surprised at the impact that he and his partners have made on the first pharma companies they have presented to.
“We really feel confident that this will fulfill an important need in between the diagnostic and therapeutic development stages,” he said. “We fully realize that in the near future we might [develop] even faster if we consider adding venture capital into the company.”
Peakadilly currently employs six people, including Kas and Rudy Dekeyser, the director of technology at VIB who is responsible for channeling patented technology from Ghent University into companies for industrial development. In the next few weeks, Peakadilly will hire four more people, Kas said.
Within the University of Ghent, the patented N-terminus separation technology was developed by Joel Vandekerckhove, who currently heads a lab team of 12 people. Vandekerckhove will continue to develop the technology and to collaborate with Peakadilly, which will apply the technology to a clinical setting.
Before becoming the founding CEO of Peakadilly, Kas was the head of the oncology department at VIB, and the head of drug discovery at Galapagos Genomics.
The next step for Peakadilly will be the extension of pilot collaborations with big pharma companies into long-term collaborations that bring in constant cash flow, said Kas. In addition, the company is looking to bring its first candidate biomarker into the outside world by the second or third quarter of next year.
In terms of technology development, the company is looking into a way of identifying proteins that have been post-translationally modified without using gels or antibodies. For example, the technique could be used to identify all proteins that have been methylated or nitrosylated.
“We’ve taken the technology out of the university and we’re really working on transferring it to an industrial setting,” said Kas. “We think we’re filling a huge gap in between diagnostic and therapeutic pharmaceutical development.”