By Mary Welch

After two "quiet" years of productive development, Cetek Corp. is ready for business. The Marlborough, Mass., company has a newly patented capillary electrophoresis (CE) assay technology that is gathering interest from a number of companies, including SmithKline Beecham plc, the fledgling firm's first client.

"We've been quietly working in the lab, developing our technology and filing patents," said Jim Little, senior vice president. "We are ready to go. We're not just a business plan. We're much farther along than other developing technology companies. We are ready to immediately work on projects."

Privately funded Cetek has developed a powerful screening technology that enhances the ability to discover valuable hits in complex samples such as natural product extracts, combinatorial mixtures and synthetic libraries. The technology combines laser-induced fluorescence with high-resolution capillary electrophoresis.

"The technology has 10 to 12 major advantages over other screening technologies," Little said. "The CE technology has been used as an analytical tool for compounds; it's never been used as a screening technology tool. That offers powerful consequences compared to conventional assays."

One benefit is that it can eliminate "weak" hits and identify only those samples that bind strongly to the target. "Our technology can be totally insensitive to weak ones. We can discriminate among strong, moderate and weak binders. With complex mixtures, this costs time and money — and you might miss the one or two good ones going through all the dead ends."

Not only is the technology attractive in identifying strong hits, it actually ranks them. "We not only tell you which are the good guys. We rank them. That's powerful information," Little said.

The Cetek technology can allow scientists to screen known hit samples to look for valuable derivatives that go undetected by conventional assays. Because the technology is extremely selective, it can be tuned to find strong binding hits — dramatically increasing primary screening productivity. In addition, active fractions from natural product extracts can be easily monitored through multiple purification steps.

For secondary screening, the Cetek technology can detect and identify the strongest binding hits. "You can run through a library by high-throughput screening and find 2,000 hits," he said. "We can identify the top 150 hits — that's a manageable number to work on."

Another plus is that the technology consumes dramatically less sample and reagents than traditional methods and allows very rapid assay development. "Our time frame is two to eight weeks," Little noted. "Common assays may take six to 10 months."

The Cetek technology can be used by companies that have new targets and want to immediately screen them. "Some believe that should never be done — that it's heresy. They believe you should never screen an uncharacterized target, but for those who have no problem with it, we can screen a target even without having any knowledge of its biological function, ligands or antibodies," he said.

The company, founded in 1996, officially was ready for business early this fall. It has an agreement with London-based SmithKline Beecham to screen compound mixtures, including natural products and combinatorial libraries.

Cetek has no problem with companies taking its technology out for a "test drive." "We'll do a pilot study, if a company is interested," Little said. "We'll take one or two targets and screen them with a number of compounds; then they can come back for a bigger study.

He added, "We can detect strong binding hits that other assays miss due to the presence of high concentrations of weak binding hits, interfering compounds or low-hit concentrations. I know our technology will be useful to biotech companies or the big pharmaceutical companies."

The technology is based upon the work of Dallas Hughes and Barry Karger at the Barnett Institute of Northeastern University, in Boston, where Karger has been a director for more than 25 years. The pair came in contact with James Waters, who founded Waters Associates, of Milford, Mass. (now Waters Corp.), which is the leading manufacturer of high-performance liquid chromatography instrumentation. Waters has been active in technology-based companies, both as a founder and as an investor.

"Jim [Waters] is 72, and an active member of the team. In fact, he's still working in the lab," Little said. Waters financed Cetek, which currently has 13 employees. *