BioWorld International Correspondent

Protagen AG raised €1 million (US$1.5 million) to expand its protein biochips business unit. The cash injection is "sufficient for our needs," CEO Christoph Hüls told BioWorld International, as the Dortmund, Germany-based proteomics company aims to break even by the beginning of next year.

Protagen is using the new cash to complete the development of prototype biochips that can provide rapid diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer.

Its effort in MS is most advanced. "We have a prototype in hand that is diagnosing the disease with more than 80 percent sensitivity and specificity," Hüls said. The chip contains about 350 antigens identified on the basis of their binding to auto-antibodies isolated from the serum of a population of MS patients. Although MS is a heterogeneous condition, a subset of those appear to be conserved across all patients, he said.

So far, the tool has been tested on approximately 150 patients. Protagen aims to increase that total several-fold, by encouraging individual clinicians to adopt the tool and through partnerships. Diagnosing MS is currently a lengthy and complicated process that involves performing magnetic resonance imaging on individuals displaying symptoms of the condition. "Our assay is usually done within half a day," Hüls said.

The company has adopted the same basic approach to building diagnostic protein biochips for the other three indications. "We are absolutely focused on the auto-antibody repertoire in the patient," Hüls said. "We are printing the proteins that are recognized by the auto-antibodies." As well as aiding diagnosis, the company aims to help drug developers stratify patient populations in clinical trials by differentiating likely drug responders from nonresponders.

Its ability to identify large panels of auto-antibodies is based on a core proteomics platform in the company that comprises 10,000 unique human recombinant proteins, each of which is fully characterized. The platform originally was developed by company co-founder Dolores Cahill of University College Dublin, in Ireland, while at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics in Berlin.

Its biochips business already has a product on the market, UNIchip, which speeds up the antibody optimization process by enabling developers to streamline antibody affinity studies and studies of off-target antibody binding activities. Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis is one publicly identified user.

In addition to its protein biochips business, Protagen has two other business units. One is focused on software development for proteomics analysis. The company has an ongoing relationship with mass spectrometry instrument maker Bruker Daltonics Inc., a subsidiary of Billerica, Mass.-based Bruker BioSciences Corp. Protagen also offers GMP-based protein analysis services. The company employs 25 people.

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