Tailoring patient treatment

Start-up: A Rockville entrepreneur is developing technologies to monitor the behavior of an individual's proteins.

October 28, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Jonathan Cohen was stunned several years ago when he learned that doctors had no precise method for determining the best treatment for a friend with late-stage cancer. The choice was guesswork, and the friend died.

Now, Cohen's tiny 20/20 GeneSystems Inc. is on the cusp of initial tests to determine whether its technology - which has been sold to laboratory researchers - could be used to tailor treatments to patients.

"Some with advanced cancer have limited time," Cohen said. "You don't want to get it wrong."

P-Film, the company's only product, will bring in more than $500,000 in revenue this year to Rockville-based 20/20 GeneSystems from sales to researchers. But it doesn't necessarily have the appearance of something that could help revolutionize the practice of medicine. The circumference of a small coaster, it is made of layers of tissue-thin "membranes" designed to capture proteins from biological samples such as blood, tumors or hair.

P-Film captures snapshots of proteins much the way film captures light, the company says. 20/20 - founded in May 2000 and still situated in an "incubator" for start-up companies - derives its revenue largely from Eastman Kodak-distributed kits containing the technology.

Laboratory researchers use the kits in an old process: making "Western blot" imprints to identify proteins in tissue samples or cells. P-Film speeds up the work, allowing up to 10 carbon-copy "snapshots" to be made from a single sample.

Cohen estimates that the research-laboratory business could mean $20 million a year for his company by 2005, but he also describes it as "low-hanging fruit." Marketing P-Film as a research product, he said, was a way to start getting revenue in the door while the company tests its technology as a tool for tailoring treatments to patients.

The company announced this month an agreement with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. that is a major step in that direction. Under the deal, P-Film will be used to take "snapshots" of the proteins at work in tumor samples from patients undergoing clinical trials. The snapshots will be scanned and then analyzed using 20/20's proprietary software, work that initially will be done by 20/20.

Proteins interact in "signaling" pathways to do the work in cells, and the malfunctioning of one or more proteins in a pathway is believed to cause diseases ranging from cancer and Parkinson's to psychiatric disorders. Pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis are increasingly developing molecularly targeted drugs - sometimes called "smart" drugs - to arrest disease by blocking or interrupting malfunctioning pathways.

But patients, even those with the same disease, have a variety of genetic makeups. That means that not all drugs will work in all people - even those with the same illness. Doctors and drug companies are looking for a way to predict which patients might respond to a certain targeted drug, as well as a way to monitor their progress as they're treated, by tracking protein activity.

20/20 hopes its technology - which includes P-Film and proprietary analytical software - eventually could be used to do both. The technology is superior to traditional techniques for identifying proteins, Cohen believes, because it can be used to identify multiple proteins simultaneously from one biological sample. It can also identify where within a sample, such as part of a tumor, proteins are active.

If successful, 20/20's technology might be used to select treatments for patients with a variety of illnesses.

Whether 20/20 grows to play a role in personalized medicine remains to be seen. But the Novartis agreement - and a similar one with an undisclosed publicly traded biopharmaceutical company - marks a coming of age for the company.

"We're kind of turning a corner as a company," Cohen said.

The son of a Rockville-area patent attorney and a homemaker, Cohen grew up working for his father's office as a "searcher." In that job, begun as a teen-ager, he spent hours rifling through old patents to ensure that a new one wouldn't conflict. The research skills later helped him as he searched online lists of available National Institutes of Health technologies, looking for one around which he could build a company.

But first Cohen followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a patent attorney. He left the law firm in 1997 to become general and patent counsel for Oncor Inc., which pioneered one of the first personalized medicine tests, a diagnostic test designed to detect the HER2/neu cancer gene. When the company was liquidated in late 1999, Cohen began his search for a technology to license.

There was no eureka moment, but he recalls thinking that the NIH basic research he found on the multiple-membrane technology could be a good platform around which many products could be built.

"I've never been interested in science per se," said Cohen, who acknowledged that he sometimes lacks patience for scientific discussions. "I'm interested in practical applications."

Cohen initially raised about $200,000 from people he calls the "three F's" - "friends, family and fools." He has since raised about $1.8 million more from investment-minded individuals known as angel investors, strategic partners and government.

His company won the Bio Product Company of the Year award from the Technology Council of Maryland this year for the molecule-capturing technique used in P-Film.

Cohen is looking to the future one methodical step at a time. He wants to raise $3 million to $4 million more from venture capitalists. He'd like to form more partnerships with companies that have drugs in later-stage clinical trials.

That way, he said, 20/20 could "develop a diagnostic linked to the drug. When the drug gets approved, our diagnostic could go right along with it."

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