Last October, Charles River Laboratories and Proteome Systems announced a joint venture that would provide commercial proteomics analysis services to pharma and biotech customers on a fee-for-service basis. Now, the new enterprise — called Charles River Proteomic Services — is almost ready to launch, with a Worcester, Mass., facility that will open for business in early April, according to Jim Jersey, the new company’s president.
Initially, CRP will focus on differential protein expression by 2D gel electrophoresis but will also offer multi-dimensional LC-MS and ICAT analyses. According to Jersey, Charles River Proteomic Services is hoping for $4-5 million in revenues in its first year. While Proteome Systems currently holds 20 percent of the joint venture and Charles River Laboratories owns the remaining 80 percent, Proteome Systems is in the process of increasing its equity in the company to 40 percent, an option it has until March.
At the facility, most of the equipment, including 12 electrophoretic platforms, comes from Proteome Systems or its collaborators. It includes integrated sample preparation, 2D gel, blotting, and gel processing instruments, as well as image analysis, data storage, and analysis software. In addition, the facility has a variety of mass spectrometers, including at least one ABI QSTAR, Thermo Finnigan ProteomeX LCQ ion trap, and Shimadzu Biotech Axima-CFR MALDI-TOF. (The company did not disclose the total number of units). To deal with the large amount of data that comes with image analysis, CRP has installed an IBM Regatta p690 supercomputer. The integrated gel analysis system is currently under validation, said Andrew Gooley, CSO of Proteome Systems and a director of CRP.
The proteomics services outfit currently has a staff of seven, but the plan is to ramp it up to 12-15 people by the end of the year, said Jersey. Rather than operating individual pieces of equipment, the staff will work in teams with responsibility for certain projects, he added.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of opening day, CRP is seeking clients. As of now, it has relationships with a number of non-commercial research groups, but is working on contracts with large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, said Jersey. While the joint venture will focus on service work for companies, it might become involved in government contracts as well, he said. The lack of IP- or royalty-strings attached should make it much easier for customers to sign up and to try out technology they do not have in-house, he believes: “The fee-for-service business model reduces the barrier of entry for us.”
How low remains to be determined. A lot of pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche, and GlaxoSmith- Kline, have already geared up their own in-house proteomics capabilities: Roche alone ordered 15 Bruker TOF/TOF instruments last year. But according to Jenny Harry, executive VP of discovery at Proteome Systems, only a few companies have integrated and automated the analysis process, and most have not invested in all available technologies. “It’s much easier to talk to people who have been doing this for a while and know what they are doing and outsource some of the early work,” she said. “If that proves successful, then there is a market for outsourcing.”
Discussions with potential clients, Harry said, showed that most are interested in 2D gel-based services. “People are familiar with 2D gels, and that’s the way they approach proteomics.” Also, putative customers said that they were looking for industrial-scale rather than smaller-scale approaches, according to Gooley.
The service will initially be focused on evaluating biomarkers for drug safety, Jersey said — for example, comparing biomarkers between pre-clinical animal models and humans. One advantage that CRP has to offer, he said, is access not only to instruments but also to samples from Charles River Laboratories’ well-characterized animal models, as well as human samples from outside vendors.
Moreover, clients don’t have to wait until their project is done to get the results but can access their data at any stage of the process in a shared session with CRP staff via secure web portals. “It’s very different from the typical core facility model, where customers hand the sample over, and then constantly ask, ‘How is my sample going?’ and ultimately get a report at the end of the day, or the month, or the year,” said Gooley. This early data access will also enable customers during the analysis process, rather than ahead of time, to make potentially costly decisions on how far they want to take a project, for example how many protein spots they want identified. Furthermore, CRP believes clients might be attracted by Proteome Systems’ sample preparation technology, which aims to reduce sample complexity, and by its ability to archive and re-analyze membrane blots of 2D gels.
One challenge that plagues most service providers is how to keep up with technology improvements. CRP bets on technology that has proven itself as robust, yet sensitive. “We know we have a very robust solution that doesn’t require dedicated resources just to maintain the instruments,” said Gooley. However, if a mass spec with higher sensitivity came out, for example, “then we would be compelled to integrate this into the platform,” said Jersey.