When Aventis acquired Xzillion Proteomics two and a half years ago, it was Proteome Sciences, a Surrey, UK-based proteomics discovery company, which went away empty-handed. Proteome Sciences had also bid for rights to acquire Xzillion, but lost out when the Franco-German pharma offered a sweeter deal, according to Christopher Pearce, Proteome Sciences’ managing director.
But now the tables have turned. Late this summer Proteome Sciences closed a deal with Aventis to acquire Xzillion in a paperless deal valued at close to £12.6 million ($19.7 million), leaving Aventis with a 16 percent interest in Proteome Sciences. The acquisition, said Pearce, puts nine-year-old Proteome Sciences in a position to capitalize on Xzillion’s technology for both in-house drug and biomarker discovery, as well as for pharma and biotech partners.
Certainly Pearce has had time to discern what his company needs. The former investment banker started Proteome Sciences in 1993 on a shoe-string budget by funding research of academic collaborators, and has since assembled research centers at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, and in Gaithersburg, Md., through a subsidiary, Intronn. With the addition of Xzillion, based in Frankfurt’s Hoechst Industrial Park, Pearson believes he’s found a combination of proteomics technology that will allow Proteome Sciences to succeed where others have struggled.
“Now, with the acquisition of Xzillion, we have the ability in-house to not only have high-output but high-throughput proteomics,“ Pearce said. “There is no overlap of people, technology, or equipment, and more importantly, we’re bringing technology and disease applications together.“
Pearce supports his claims by pointing to the capabilities Proteome Sciences has amassed in its dealings with academic collaborators, and to the proprietary chemistry developed at Xzillion. The company is working with Brian Anderton at King’s College to discover biomarkers and drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease, with Sam Hanash at the University of Michigan on cancer, and most significantly with Michael Dunn, whose research into cardiovascular disease using proteomics receives a significant portion of its funding from Proteome Sciences. In fact, the company set up a professorship for Dunn at King’s College when he moved there from Imperial College late last year, Pearce said.
While most of Proteome Sciences’ collaborators are employing 2D gels in their research, Xzillion has combined these technologies with protein tagging techniques that in theory do not discriminate against membrane proteins — as 2D gels are prone to do. Specifically, Xzillion has developed a method for affinity tagging either the N- or C-termini of a sample of proteins, digesting the proteins, and then simplifying the peptide mixture by removing the untagged peptides. Using its Finnigan LCQ ion trap or Micromass Q-TOF mass spectrometers, Xzillion researchers then attempt to identify the proteins present by matching their mass spectral data with protein database information using proprietary software.
Combining Xzillion’s throughput capacity with Proteome Sciences’ disease-specific research represents a change of heart for the research and technology arm of Aventis, which initially acquired the technology and funded its work over the last two years. Although Aventis could not be reached for comment, Pearce said officials at Aventis were persuaded that the technology would find faster applications to disease if unencumbered by big pharma’s organizational constraints. In the near term, Xzillion will continue to perform contract research for Aventis, Pearce added.
“We started this process [of discussing the acquisition of Xzillion] in August of 2001, and it took the best part of [a] year to persuade them why this made the ideal combination,“ Pearce said. “They have considerable upside themselves as an investor, but more importantly it’s accelerating the application for their own needs.“
In addition to contract research partnerships with Aventis and others, Proteome Sciences is also generating its own intellectual property, with £3.5 million ($5.5 million) in cash acquired along with Xzillion, Pearce said. Through the company’s collaborations with researchers at the University of Geneva, the company has rights to commercialize markers in serum that differentiate between ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, and has filed patents on both the markers and the antibodies it has produced to monitor them. In May, the company disclosed that it had developed a marker with 100 percent specificity and 68 percent sensitivity for distinguishing between stroke and heart attack.
However, like many proteomics companies with promise, Proteome Sciences must still find a way to turn a profit. And currently, its time in the field is not reflected in its portfolio of pharma partners.
Pearce, however, claimed that only now has Proteome Sciences assembled all the pieces to demonstrate its worthiness as a partner for big pharma.
“We’ve moved from two and a half years ago being a virtual company, funding world leaders in disease proteomics,” he said, "to actually having our own facilities, and then with the acquisition we have a fully operational complete system."