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Peptidomics Firm PXBioVision Hopes to Succeed Where it Failed in a Former Life as Digilab BioVision

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This story originally ran on Sept. 29.

By Tony Fong

The German peptidomics firm formerly known as Digilab BioVision has resurfaced as PXBioVision.

In late 2008, the Hannover-based company officially declared insolvency after 11 years in business. But rather than letting the company and the technology it had developed join the pile of proteomics and protein-related companies that have crashed and burned in recent years, a group of former employees of Digilab BioVision bought what was left of it, renamed it and relaunched it, basing the new firm on the same technology it used in its former life and still focusing on providing services to pharmaceutical customers.

The company, originally called BioVision, was founded in 1997 by Peter Schulz-Knappe and Michael Schrader as a spin-off of the Lower Saxony Institute of Peptide Research to commercialize technologies examining the peptidome [See PM 05/14/04]. In 2006, BioVision was acquired by Digilab, a Canton, Ohio-based spectroscopy firm.

While the company attracted some early attention and forged collaborations with life-science and pharma bigwigs such as AstraZeneca, Applied Biosystems, and Roche, the combination of the economic downturn and a lack of interest in peptidomics, in general, forced Digilab BioVision's owners into insolvency.

That's where seven former employees of Digilab BioVision stepped in, though, and dug into their own pockets to buy its assets. While each could have gone on to work at other firms, they all wanted to continue the work they had been doing.

"We are really convinced [about] peptides as markers and we think they are underexplored and we are trying to change [that]," Harald Tammen, chief medical officer for PXBioVision, told ProteoMonitor last week. While Karl Schorn, the managing director and director of product development, declined to say how much he and his colleagues paid for PXBioVision, he said in an e-mail that it was "a significant amount of money" and no outside investors were involved in the acquisition.

As its name suggests, peptidomics is the qualitative and quantitative study of peptides with the idea that by using peptidomic methods, disease states and processes can be analyzed on the cellular level and information about protein synthesis can be gleaned that can not be ascertained by traditional proteomics methods.

"Peptides always result from proteolytic processing, so if you have a study with, for example, a protease inhibitor, of course, peptides are an ideal class of biomolecules to monitor changes due to the administration of the protease inhibitor," Tammen said. "That is something special that you cannot examine when you look only at proteins. …If you somehow alter the proteolytic process, it is mirrored in the peptides."

Unlike in proteomics where a protein is tryptically digested and then the peptides are analyzed, peptidomics allows for the study of native peptides, said Rüdiger Hess, managing director and director of bioanalytical operations for PXBioVision.

"What we are really doing is to qualify and quantify peptides in biological samples directly," he said, resulting in more specific markers than is achievable with proteomics.

But unlike proteomics — which, even if it hasn't completely matured as a research field, has at least incrementally grown in legitimacy and stature in the past decade — peptidomics has never advanced beyond being a peripheral subcategory of proteomics.

Today, only a small handful of firms are involved in peptidomics. PPD, a contract research organization based in Wilmington, NC, offers peptidomics services. Atheris Laboratories, a CRO in Geneva, Switzerland, also offers peptide biomarker profiling services. Proteome Sciences also has been developing peptidomic workflows. And PerkinElmer entered the peptidomics field in 2007 with the launch of a reagent kit for immunoaffinity purification called Immuno-catch.

According to Tammen, peptidomics has been held back to a degree by the inherent challenges of the field. Many of the bottlenecks that have hindered proteomics also pose challenges to peptidomics, but at an even greater degree, for example, the demand for greater sensitivity and measurement of low-abundance biological molecules, in this case peptides. Other bottlenecks include sample quality and reproducibility in the sample-separation step.

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The biggest obstacle to wider adoption of peptidomics, however, said PXBioVision officials, is the controversy that arose around the SELDI technology when low molecular weight protein biomarkers for ovarian cancer discovered by Emanuel Petricoin and Lance Liotta and described in 2002 in the Lancet were later discredited.

"All the sequences that were later published were just fragments from a precursor protein and, of course, most of these studies did study serum, for example, not plasma," he said. "There was a huge expectation in peptides in cancer biomarkers, and afterward it was clear that this was all not true. I think peptidomics still suffers" as a result, Tammen added.

The fact that he and his colleagues chose not to walk away from the field when their former employers did is proof of their commitment to peptidomics as a science, he added.

"It's a challenge of course, but we are strong believers," Tammen said. "Don't forget we [have been] working in this area for 10 years or more. We know the potential and what we are trying is really to prove it now."

Restarting the company meant having to reestablish relationships with customers again, and according to Tammen, "they are really supportive. From our time in Digilab we know certain people in these companies and we have direct contact to them."

Because of their history in the space, customers already knew their work and "I think the people in the pharmaceutical business … have the confidence," in PXBioVision, Tammen said.

While PXBioVision bought Digilab BioVision's machinery and moved into its former facilities, it has not purchased any of intellectual property, though Tammen said PXBiovision is currently negotiating to do so. The IP includes peptide biomarkers.

The technology it employs comes from Digilab BioVision though it has been rebranded Spectromania, a bioinformatics software tool for the visualization of mass spectral data, which the company uses to study low-abundance peptides.

Currently, the company can achieve a sensitivity of about 50 picomolars in blood plasma, Tammen said. By comparison, the SELDI instrument, sold by Bio-Rad Laboratories, can measure peptides in the micromolar to nanomolar levels, he said.

The software is used in-house, but PXBioVision plans to commercialize it before the end of the year.

While the main business focus is on providing services, it has several biomarker projects in different stages of development directed at three cardiovascular diseases, nephrology, and oncology, Hess said. The firm is currently seeking investors to move them along.

"We know what we have to do, but we certainly need money and we [will] certainly try to get this money using the services … but to start faster means finding investors," he said.

Hess and Schorn are effectively the co-CEOs of the company now with Hess responsible for the laboratory and scientific work and Schorn tending to the business side of the company.

Hess contributed work building up the technology and the standard operating procedures at Digilab BioVision while Schorn had purview over the firm's administrative and project-management functions.

In addition to the seven who bought the company, PXBioVision has a handful of lab technicians and some freelancers who provide technical assistance on projects and IP support. By the time Digilab BioVision shut down, it had 17 employees, Tammen said.

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