As proteomics companies struggle to convert novel analysis methods into profits, many have turned to biomarkers, over drugs or targets, as a surer route to commercial success. But even the biomarker business has its pitfalls, requiring access to clinical samples and the ability to convince customers of the value of biomarkers as diagnostic or prognostic indicators.
SurroMed, a young biomarker company based in Mountain View, Calif., has been able to remain afloat in these roiling waters, establishing a number of partnerships over the last year. Just last week, the company added to its list of collaborators the Brisbane, Calif., biopharma company InterMune.
In the partnership, SurroMed will use mass spectrometry to analyze clinical samples provided by InterMune in order to find biomarkers of drug response in ongoing clinical trials, as well as biomarkers that could be of use for InterMune’s research into pulmonary and hepatic diseases. SurroMed declined to provide details on the anticipated duration or size of the study, its relative significance for its business, or the financial structure of the collaboration. InterMune officials were unavailable for comment.
SurroMed’s other commercial partnerships — eight so far, with several more in late-stage negotiations, according to vice president of business development, Nancy Grove — run the gamut from fee-for-service arrangements to full collaborations. One of them has resulted in a follow-on study, Grove said. Last year alone, the company announced collaborations with Eli Lilly, Biogen, PPD Discovery, and the University of California, Davis.
Its commercial partnerships provide the 60-person company, which launched in 1997 and became operational in 2000, with short-term revenues. “We recognize the need to balance [creating] value for the future [with] being able to maintain ourselves today,” said Grove.
Another source of funding — besides the $73 million the company has raised in equity so far from undisclosed private and public venture groups — is government grants and contracts. A cornerstone of its internal research program into rheumatoid arthritis is a contract with the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases that SurroMed shares with several academic institutions. Last year, the company also won two NIH grants, a $168,000 grant for studying Alzheimer’s biomarkers and a $107,000 grant for developing affinity mass tags.
Besides a variety of funding sources, SurroMed stresses its broad range of techniques that go beyond analyzing proteins. “You can’t have your approach to biomarkers be platform-driven; you need to be able to look across the entire mass spectrum, from the smallest carbohydrate up to peptides, proteins, and — depending on the disease — even inflammatory cell populations,” said Grove. In some studies, SurroMed even incorporated gene expression and SNP analysis data from its partners in the analysis.
SurroMed currently focuses on three technologies: mass spectrometry, cytometry, and immunoassays, which are all complemented by in-house bioinformatics. A fourth technology, nanobarcodes, was spun out last year into its own company, Nanoplex Technologies.
SurroMed’s early work was centered around microvolume laser scanning cytometry, which allows users to measure up to 250 different inflammatory cell populations as well as track up to 450 cell surface markers. Later on, the company added mass spectrometry and boasts of its ability to quantify large numbers of molecules without using isotope tagging. According to Chris Becker, SurroMed’s director of chemistry, his group tracked 30,000 molecular ions — both proteins and metabolites — per pre-clinical sample in a recent study. Of those, it identified over 1,000 molecules that showed the most significant changes. For quantification, SurroMed uses the raw intensities of the signals “in a very reproducible setting,” which requires a high degree of standardization, Becker said. This even translates to sample collection: SurroMed provides its partners with detailed protocols, “even back to how to draw blood from the patients,” Grove said.
SurroMed is also hoping to develop its own diagnostics and therapeutics. One of its strategies is to in-license compounds that have failed in clinical trials or have been unsuccessful in the market, but “we haven’t found the right compound yet,” said Grove.
What is the company’s goal for the year? While profitability is still some way off, “we are getting the burn down to where it’s tolerable,” said Grove. “Our overall goal is to build a healthy sustainable company that’s known as a biomarker company, and we think we are on our way to do this.”