By Randall Osborne
West Coast Editor
SEATTLE ¿ As it completed a $13.5 million round of financing, LifeSpan BioSciences Inc. signed Pfizer Inc. as the first subscriber to its database of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in human tissue.
Not bad for an outfit that started in the basement of president and CEO Joseph Brown, who said LifeSpan has been quietly building its platform of molecular pathology, microarrays and bioinformatics since September 1995, while forging relationships with pharmaceutical firms through fee-for-service work.
¿We¿ll be adding to [the database] during the next year, so Pfizer came in early,¿ Brown told BioWorld Today, and new data is made available as soon as it¿s gained.
LifeSpan now is housed in a building north of downtown Seattle, where Brown sat in a conference room with chief scientific officer Glenna Burmer and chief financial officer Anthony White, explaining an approach they claim represents the ¿next level¿ in gene analysis for drug development.
The company uses antibodies and its bank of normal and pathological tissue specimens to measure GPCRs, and has created a relational database that provides GPCR expression for each cell type in the tissues and diseases studied, with high-resolution digital images.
New York-based Pfizer gets early access to localization data on GPCR targets ¿ a library that will be supplemented continuously over the next two years. Terms were not disclosed.
Brown said ligands are known for about 190 GPCRs, and these can be examined with more precision for potential links to new diseases. About 130 other GPCRs ¿look like drug targets and smell like drug targets,¿ he said. ¿We just need to find the drug.¿
Burmer, trained as a pathologist and molecular biologist, said many GPCRs can¿t be detected by a microarray or even the most advanced high-throughput technology.
¿Molecular pathology is a much better way to localize what these things are doing in disease, and we¿re doing it in human material instead of animal models,¿ she said.
LifeSpan has an edge, because most competitors employ molecular biologists and chemists, but no pathologists who study human tissue, Burmer said.
¿Localization is a pathology skill,¿ she said. ¿It requires many years of training to be able to look under a microscope and say, This is a macrophage, and it¿s activated, it¿s expressing the gene, and it¿s associated with a disease.¿ We¿re positioned with the right technology at the right time.¿
White said the financing, from private and institutional investors, provides LifeSpan with ¿three or four years worth of burn.¿ The company became cash flow-positive in December, and intends to go public within the next year or so, he said.
Meanwhile, it would take other database firms ¿a couple of years to catch up¿ with the GPCR library compiled by LifeSpan ¿ which will steadily supplement its findings, and will compile more databases to keep ahead, White said.
¿We¿ve built some substantial barriers to entry,¿ he said. ¿Tools, protocols, technology, relationships ¿ they¿re all pretty solid right now.¿
LifeSpan last made news several years ago, when the company said it was sorting through diseased human tissues for gene expression patterns to identify molecules that may be responsible for triggering a variety of age-related disorders, such as Alzheimer¿s disease, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis and cancer. (See BioWorld Today, April 3, 1997, p. 1.)
Burmer said LifeSpan has a two-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to create a database of gene expression in normal tissues, and identify new aging genes.