NeuroSearch A/S, of Ballerup, Denmark, is spinning off a new company to develop a high-throughput version of its automated patch clamp technology for functional screening of compounds that modulate ion channel activity.

The new firm, Sophion Bioscience A/S, also of Ballerup, will own the rights to NeuroSearch's NeuroPatch technology and associated intellectual property. It also will assume the rights to a patent application NeuroSearch has filed for a parallel voltage clamp system.

A technology transfer deal with Pfizer Inc., of New York, partly funded development of the current version of the technology, which offers a daily throughput of about 30 compounds based on patch clamp analysis of a single cell. This represents a considerable advance on what was otherwise a laborious manual process. But Sophion aims to develop several successor generations that can analyze ion channel activity in up to 1,000 cells simultaneously, enabling throughputs of several thousand compounds per day.

"The total development plan is three to four years, but we will put out interim prototypes," Jorgen Drejer, director of cell biology at NeuroSearch, told BioWorld International.

Demand for high-throughput functional screening of ion channels will intensify three to five years from now, he said, as ion channels - cell membrane proteins that govern the electrical activity of cells in response to physiological stimuli - become increasingly important drug targets.

Fluorescence-based screening techniques can miss some potentially important compounds, he said, and will in any case require patch clamp analysis for confirmation of function and potency.

Several drugs already on the market, such as the anti-diabetic glibenclamide, the anti-epileptic lamotrigine, the local anaesthetic lidocaine, the anti-arrhythmic amiodarone, the anti-hypertensive and anti-arrhythmic nifedipine, the anti-epileptic benzodiazepines, and the muscle relaxant suxamethonium, act through either blocking or activating ion channel activity. A much larger number of ion channel modulators is in clinical and preclinical development, said Drejer.

The present generation of the NeuroPatch technology involves the precise positioning of the tip of a pipette relative to a cell of interest that has been immobilized. "It's like a moon landing process," Drejer said. A "gigaseal" is formed between the tip of the pipette and the cell membrane, and electrical measurements can be taken in a defined set of physiological conditions. This process will be reversed in future versions - cells will be maneuvered into the correct position. The new platform will be silicon-based to enable greater integration with electronic measuring and recording systems. A preliminary version already has yielded promising results, NeuroSearch said.

Sophion is a wholly owned subsidiary of NeuroSearch at present, but will undergo its first financing round in the fall, Drejer said.

NeuroSearch anticipates total development costs of DKK45 million (US$5.7 million). It aims to establish a consortium of pharmaceutical companies to fund development of the technology, either through equity participation in Sophion or through technology license fees.

Sophion will be a platform company solely, said Drejer, while NeuroSearch will continue its biological focus. Earlier this year, the latter company entered an alliance with Abbott Laboratories, of Abbott Park, Ill., for the discovery and development of ion channel modulators for diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Sophion represents NeuroSearch's second spin-off inside a year. Last year it transferred its gene and cell therapy programs to NsGene A/S. Torsten Freltoft, formerly deputy director of the research arm of the industrial group NKT Holding A/S, of Brondby, Denmark, is CEO of Sophion. Morten Bech, who was project manager of the automated screening program at NeuroSearch, is technical director.