Washington Editor

Metabolon Inc., a low-key company specializing in biomarkers for drugs and diagnostics, raised $8 million in a Series B funding round that closed last week.

"We're still keeping below the radar," explained President and CEO John Ryals. "We still haven't really settled down on the business model that we'll eventually have, but we're trying out a lot of different things," he said.

The service side of the Durham, N.C.-based business is most established. Metabolon's roster of partners numbers about 30, including "10 of the top 15 global pharmaceutical companies," Ryals told BioWorld Today.

Several familiar government and academic research institutes also have partnerships with the company, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston,

They come to Metabolon for its metabolomics technology, which has roots in the body's natural small molecules. Already, the technology has been used for research in motor neuron diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and it led to the identification of biomarkers that are generic to motor neuron disorders and others unique to ALS. The company also has applied metabolomics to studies of additional neurological diseases - Huntington's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's - as well as Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases such as HIV.

"Instead of looking at genes, RNA or proteins, we actually analyze systems based on small molecules," Ryals said, adding that humans only have about 2,500 of them, compared to the 20,000 or 25,000 genes.

Harnessing an ability to look at all molecules present in a sample, to measure the spectrum of biochemical changes and map them to metabolic pathways, the company discovers biomarkers to help identify safer compounds for development and shorten the time for drugs to get to market. More specifically, those biomarkers can be useful in target identification and validation, lead prioritization and optimization, and preclinical and clinical studies.

Such research has provided Metabolon additional "experience into how the technologies can be applied," Ryals said, and the latest funding will push its business evolution further, as its patent-pending technology has uses in the early diagnosis of disease states.

"We're now moving toward further applications and high-end service in personalized medicine," Ryals said, noting that the company is internally developing products to provide a "high-value service for patients." Applying metabolomics to diagnostic applications will address questions "that are going to solve some economic decision points for patients and payers," Ryals said, adding that Metabolon hopes to launch such a product within the next 18 months to 36 months.

Most of the technology was built internally by the company's four founders: Ryals, Chris Beecher, Rima Daouk and Paul Schimmel. Beecher is still with Metabolon as its vice president of biochemistry and technology, while the latter two remain scientific advisers. The company launched its efforts in earnest in 2002, and two years later landed $9 million in Series A funding that was done in two tranches.

The new round involved all existing investors, including Sevin Rosen Funds, of Palo Alto, Calif., which led the round, the Aurora Funds in Durham, N.C. and the Trelys Funds in Columbia, S.C. A new investor, New York-based Harris & Harris Group, also contributed to the financing.

Metabolon employs 27 people, and Ryals expects it to become cash-flow positive within the next year, given its existing revenue stream from its service business. "This is enough cash to get us over the line," he said.

In addition to expanding its technology into diagnostics, the company is looking at repositioning or rescuing drugs. "This technology is very powerful stuff," Ryals said. "It really is solving a lot of problems."