Firms are grabbing proteomics by the bottleneck to open new market

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June 11, 2003 — No sooner was the human genome mapped out that scientists moved on to the next big thing: proteomics, which was to revolutionize drug development by making it quicker and cheaper.

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Not quite. Or at least, not yet. A technology bottleneck is holding things up. It’s a problem that’s familiar to Allen Roses, senior vice president of genetics research at pharma group GlaxoSmithKline. He says the real difficulty in moving forward is that some of the necessary tools have not yet been invented.

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“The challenge is that high-throughput proteomics — separation and readout systems — are not yet available,” he said.

This means companies involved in building proteomic tools are in overdrive mode, scrambling to create the tools that will become the industry standard.

The numbers are pretty enticing. Multimedia Research Group, a consultancy, estimates the proteomics market will grow from $565 million in 2001 to $3.3 billion in 2006. For proteomic tools companies, the key is to be first to market. “It’s like a big pie that will be shared by those who are around first,” said Emmanuel Russo, of Tecan, a Swiss-based developer of tools for pharmaceutical firms.

The human genome maps out the human body. But it’s the proteins that do all the work as the building blocks behind human cells. They allow us to get energy out of food, to flex our muscles and make us see and hear the rest of the world. When the proteins are doing their jobs right, we are healthy and active. When they’re not, we get sick.

Up to now, drug development has functioned through trial and error, with clinical trials first on animals, then on willing humans. Identifying which proteins carry out which functions allows drug developers to better target the proteins that are behaving strangely. It would make the process of drug development cheaper, faster and potentially more effective.

The difficulty of working with protein starts with the challenge of separating them all. There are 30,000 genes in the human body, but exponentially more proteins. “And they change all the time,” explains Sam Hanash, president of the international Human Proteome Organization. “So to try and capture them and mine this particular field effectively is very challenging from a technology point of view.”

It’s not surprising that protein separation is expected to become the biggest market segment in this industry. Front Line Strategic Consulting estimated it would make up 51 percent of proteomics sales this year.

Most research labs separate proteins thanks to two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, a process that separates proteins based on their molecular weight and then by electric charge. They can also use mass spectrometry, which measures the molecular weight of protein.

Amersham Biosciences, a multinational company with Anglo-Swedish origins, is betting proteomics will lead to great things. The company already sells a range of products for proteomic research. “Proteomics represents around 30 percent of our R&D investment,” said spokeswoman Linda Van Manen. “It makes it the fastest growing business area in the company.”

Other companies — like Advion Biosciences, of Ithaca, N.Y. — are betting on a single application. “What we have is an automated nanoelectrospray source, which is a device that fits on the front end of a mass spectrometer,” explained Gary Williams, sales manager for Europe. It gives users the ability to get more information from the least amount of sample. “In protein identification, people don’t usually have a lot of sample, so you want to use what you have most effectively,” Williams said.

It’s difficult for a lab to start working on proteomics on the cheap. The equipment is rather expensive for a small lab. Keith Williams, CEO of Australia’s Proteome Systems, estimates it takes around $2 million to get started. “Just owning a mass spectrometer doesn’t get you into proteomics; many tools are needed,” he said. “If you don’t have a completely integrated solution, you don’t get answers.”

That kind of price tag, coupled with the declining business environment, has made proteomic tools a tough business to be in. Many of the early proteomics companies like Maryland’s Celera Genomics  and California’s Incyte Corp. have recently experienced financial difficulties.

But the promise of proteomics is far too great to write off. Multimedia Research Group estimates that the pharmaceutical industry is the most lucrative sector of the Fortune 500, with average profits almost three times higher than other industries. With older drug patents expiring every day, the industry is in constant need of new drugs. And though developments are being slowed by the current technology bottleneck, drug companies remain very, very interested in proteomics.


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