SRU Biosystems tries to lighten the load for drug discovery

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WOBURN, Mass., Nov. 24, 2003 — Detecting biological compounds, friendly or otherwise, can be tricky. So Brian Cunningham decided to shed some light on the problem.

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The bright idea came to him four years ago at Draper Laboratory. He was doing biomedical and micromachining research, and asked himself why he couldn’t combine the two fields to create a new type of device that bridges the gap between optical sensors and high-throughput screening.

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Cunningham couldn’t really think of a reason why not — and so SRU Biosystems Inc. was born.

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SRU’s sensors are called guided-mode resonant filters; that is, they can be created to allow different wavelengths of light to flow through them to convey specific bits of information. More commonly called tunable filters, such devices are old news in the telecommunications world and helped usher in the Internet explosion in the 1990s.

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SRU’s filters, however, use a biological assay as the agent to determine what wavelength of light shines through. For example, a sensor could be machined to screen for anthrax. If no anthrax binds to the assay, the light would shine through as red. If it were detected, the light would come through as white.

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This technique eliminates the need for labels –costly radioactive isotopes, quantum dots or other markers that are now attached to molecules to help researchers see whether a test is successful. Without labels, drug researchers can cut their use of reagents, develop assays more quickly and produce more accurate results.

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The savings comes from the shorter length of time necessary for assay development, Cunningham said. Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., for example, used SRU’s sensors for a test that would have normally taken two months, and finished the job in a week.

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“Those times add up,” Cunningham said. “Even something that gets a drug to market six months sooner has tremendous benefit.”

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Cunningham, SRU’s chief technology officer, founded the company in June 2000 with two partners. Today the business manufactures its own sensors in an on-site pilot facility and is in beta testing with Millennium and several other “pretty large pharmas” the company will not name. He expects the sensors to be commercially available by early next year.

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SRU has raised venture capital “in the tens of millions,” although Cunningham won’t say precisely how much or from whom. One investor is Gordon Binder, former chairman and chief executive of Amgen Inc., now at Coastal Capital. Binder is also the father of Brant Binder, SRU’s co-founder and chief financial officer.

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The sensor itself is a polymer substrate, with ridges along the surface about 200 nanometers high and 550 nanometers apart. A coating of epoxy on top of the plastic produces the desired wavelength of light, and assays are placed on the epoxy to test for compounds. The sensors can detect a shift in wavelength down to one-half a picometer (one picometer is one-trillionth of a meter).

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SRU’s first market is likely to be the pharmaceutical industry, Cunningham said. The sensors can be cut from plastic sheets and mounted in a standard 96-well plate for drug screening, fitting 100 sensors into each well.

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Competition comes from two fronts. Most seriously from Corning Life Sciences and Artificial Sensing Instruments, which filed a lawsuit against SRU in July alleging patent infringement. SRU denies the charge and has filed a countersuit. Other rivals, such as Applied Biosystems Inc., already have label-free systems on the market using a different technology that they say is equally effective and more easily integrated into Big Pharma’s operations.

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Applied Biosystems’ 8500 Chip Affinity Analyzer debuted earlier this year. It was designed by HTS Biosystems and uses surface plasmon resonance technology, in which light is bounced off a metal film with an assay on the surface. When a hit occurs, the angle of light reflection changes.

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Enrico Picozza, chief operating officer of the 23-person HTS, said he considered using an approach similar to SRU’s, but believes surface plasmon resonance is more easily understood and adopted. “Label-free is not novel to us,” he said. “There are a lot of label-free techniques, … it’s just the way you implement it and get it to market.”

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There is no question that biosensors are potentially a big market. But for drug discovery, pure speed will not win the day for SRU, Applied Biosystems or anyone else, industry analysts say. The crucial question is the quality of information gleaned from the sensors.

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Jack Gardner, a New Jersey consultant who helps biotechs evaluate screening technologies, said today’s bottleneck happens during a molecule’s second or third screening, when researchers need more precise data about its behavior. A biosensor that can do some of that analysis in the first screening is the one researchers want.

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“If you ask someone about reagent costs, the answer might be that it doesn’t

matter,” Gardner said. “The guy on the bench is looking for sensitivity.”

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Company file: SRU Biosystems Inc.
(last updated Nov. 24, 2003)

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Company

SRU Biosystems Inc.

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Headquarters

14A Gill St.

Woburn, Mass., 01801

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History

Founded in June 2000, SRU Biosystems’ technology is based on biomedical and micromachining research conducted by Brian Cunningham while the company co-founder worked at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. In July 2003, Corning Life Sciences and Artificial Sensing Instruments filed a patent infringement claim against SRU, which countersued Corning in September.

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Industries

Drug discovery and delivery; diagnosis and analysis

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Employees

30

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Small tech-related products and services

SRU’s BIND products, currently in the prototype/pilot stage, are label-free optical biosensors that allow for high-throughput detection of biochemical interactions when integrated with microliter plates or microarray chips. The company says elimination of fluorescent labels or radioactive “tags” shortens assay development time, lowers costs and increases accuracy.

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Management

  • Owen Dempsey: president and chief executive officer
  • Brant Binder: chief financial officer, founder
  • Brian Cunningham: chief technology officer, founder
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    Selected strategic partners and customers

    Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc.

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    Selected competitors

  • Biacore International AB
  • Applied Biosystems Inc.
  • Corning Life Sciences
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    Barriers to market

    SRU Biosystems is in a growing niche with a rapidly increasing number of competitors, several of whom claim an easier product integration process. The outcome of the Corning infringement claim could also shape the company’s success.

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    Contact

    URL: www.srubiosystems.com

    Phone: 781-933-7255

    Fax: 781-933-5960

    Email: info@srubiosystems.com

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    — Research by Gretchen McNeely

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