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Striving Far Afield: US Market is Most Promising for UK-based Farfield Sensors

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Gerry Ronan says his company’s technology competes against “nobody” when it comes to analyzing protein structure in real time. Rather, Farfield Sensor’s approach — dual polarization interferometry — complements other analytical techniques, such as SPR, NMR, or X-ray crystallography, the Salford, UK company’s managing director said.

But for a small UK company like Farfield, which has about 20 employees, getting the word about its technology out into the promising US market has proven a challenge. “The US market is a difficult market to penetrate, unless you have got a lot of money in the bank,” said Simon Carrington, Farfield’s marketing manager.

Potential rewards make the challenge worth it, according to Ronan. “It is by far the largest, most attractive market for this sort of technology,” with up to 4,000 potential users, he said. Thus, Farfield is now trying to gain a foothold in the US, starting in the Northeast.

In December, the company took on Massachusetts-based SciPartners, a small company headed by a former colleague of Carrington, as its US distributor. Later this month, the company will also showcase its AnaLight Bio200 instrument at the Biophysical Society Meeting.

Farfield has sold no instrument in the US yet, and getting users to accept a new analytical technique is difficult, Ronan admits. But he is convinced Farfield’s technology — which could be applied to study many kinds of molecules — has something valuable to offer to protein researchers. “Our main thrust is in proteins — that’s where all of our application work has been done,” he said.

Farfield’s AnaLight Bio200, launched in 2002, allows researchers to determine the size and density of proteins as well as any changes in these parameters in real time. The instrument passes two polarizations of light from a laser through two glass waveguides stacked on top of each other. The glass surface of one waveguide has proteins immobilized on it, while the other waveguide serves as a reference. Behind the waveguide structure — in the far field — the light creates an interference pattern that can be interpreted to determine the protein density and thickness of the layer.

One application of the technol-ogy is to study structural changes that take place when a protein binds another protein or a drug molecule as small as 50 Da. “But the real power of the technique is the resolution that we can measure them at,” said Ronan — down to 0.1 Angstroms. Also, he said, by monitoring changes in density, the instrument can distinguish between specific and non-specific binding.

By relying on independent measurement of both size and density — not mass changes — Farfield’s technology can also be used to study how different isoforms of a protein interact with a protein drug, for example. Further, the instrument can monitor how proteins fold or unfold, or how they form aggregates, as proteins involved in Alzheimer’s might do.

Measuring molecular interactions suggests a comparison of Farfield’s DPI with surface plasmon resonance, and “everybody does [compare us to SPR],” Carrington said. However, SPR is optimized to study higher affinity and higher molecular weight interactions, he said, whereas “We can offer some complementary information in terms of the structural events that are going on, rather than just the kinetic parameters,” and can also quantify this information, he said.

Almost all current users of Farfield’s instrument have also been using surface plasmon resonance, according to Ronan.

Right now, the AnaLight Bio200 — which sells for £100,000 ($181,000) — allows for only one measurement at a time, but it interfaces with commercially available auto-samplers.

Making the instrument higher throughput — a recent development with SPR instruments (see PM 1-16-04) — will be a second step, after users are convinced of the value of the technology. “An awful lot of instrument companies have made very big mistakes by investing huge amounts of money in high-throughput platforms,” said Carrington. “There is absolutely no point in high-throughput platforms if people are not interested in the measurements you are taking,” he added.

So far, Farfield has sold a total of 25 instruments, most of them in the UK and Japan. Part of the company’s success in Japan, according to Carrington, results from being able to find a single distributor for the entire country more easily than it can in the US. In May, Farfield’s Japanese distributor, Maruban, will present the technology at the Japan HUPO meeting in Tokyo.

Farfield is financed privately, “in excess of $5 million,” according to Ronan. It has primarily been funded by WorkNorth II, a technology fund that invests in companies in the northwest of England.

Farfield’s primary goal this year is to make its first sales in the US, said Carrington: “If we can get a good user base in the Northeast of the US, we would be very happy with that.”

—JK

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