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CASE Center company receives grant from NIH to develop biological probes

October 31, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

OrthoSystems Inc., a biotechnology start-up company founded by Syracuse University researchers, has been awarded a $977,000 Phase II grant from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program of the National Institutes of Health to further develop and commercialize the company's core technology-a novel technique to aid in the discovery of biological probes that can be used in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

OrthoSystems is affiliated with SU's Center for Advanced Systems and Engineering (CASE Center) and is located in SU's Center for Science and Technology. The company was founded in 2003 by SU alumnus Mark McPike G'01 and chemistry professors Philip N. Borer and Bruce Hudson.

To maximize the potential of their core technology, OrthoSystems researchers needed to find a faster way to discover DNA probes. Previous SBIR funding enabled the company to purchase an instrument called a Geniom One (from Febit Inc.) that can synthesize up to a half million DNA strands on a glass slide. The instrument is one of only eight such instruments in the United States, says McPike, OrthoSystems' chief science officer.

While DNA contains all of a person's hereditary information, in its most elemental form, it is composed of four chemical bases-adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T)-held together by sugar and phosphate molecules. The ingredients can be chemically combined in millions of different ways to create synthetic DNA libraries.

The Geniom One synthesizes DNA on a glass biochip. After the biochip is created, the researchers inject samples of protein molecules derived from living cells onto the biochip to test whether any of the DNA strands will bind to the protein. DNA molecules that bind to proteins are called aptamers. Aptamers are powerful molecules that have the potential to be used in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. When positive "hits" are identified on the glass biochip, the researchers use a traditional DNA synthesizer to create larger quantities of a DNA "hit" for further study.

"We are using DNA in a very non-traditional manner," McPike says. "The libraries of DNA we create in the laboratory are not related to any living organisms; however, the synthetic DNA aptamers do have the potential to bind with protein molecules that come from living organisms. That binding property can be exploited to create new drugs or new diagnostic tools."

For example, if an aptamer binds to a surface protein on a virus, there is a potential that the aptamer could be used as a drug to prevent or slow the progression of the virus, McPike says. In other cases, such as in cancer therapy, an aptamer could act as a "bloodhound" to facilitate the delivery of a drug molecule to its target cells. Aptamers can also be used as biosensors to diagnose diseases or to detect proteins in environmental samples, such as water.

OrthoSystems has received other phase I and phase II grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Homeland Security. Grant support from the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems has been awarded to both the company and SU to develop sensors to test for environmental contaminants in public water supplies. Other support for related projects in Borer's lab at SU has come from the NIH and the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR).

McPike says much of the fundamental research that forms the basis for the company's core technology was done by Borer and Hudson in their SU research labs. The two scientists have collaborated for many years to find new ways to attack the virus that causes AIDS. As an SU graduate student, McPike collaborated with Borer on his HIV research before graduating in 2001 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. McPike spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and returned to Syracuse in 2003 to work with Borer in the new company.

Borer's research focuses on the structure, dynamics and stability in nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) systems. After receiving a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, he held a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. A member of the Berkeley team that developed the first rules for the stability of base- paired RNA and DNA structures, Borer was also a consultant, staff scientist, and director of research and development for New Methods Research Inc. (NMRi), which created and sold software for use in chemical and biochemical analysis; and a co- founder of Advanced Resonance Technologies Inc., which develops products for chemical analysis by nuclear magnetic resonance.

Hudson specializes in biochemical applications of fluorescence spectroscopy and in neutron scattering and diffraction. He is an expert in thermodynamics and chemical kinetics. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1972 and has held positions at Stanford University and the University of Oregon prior to coming to SU.

Peter Kent, president of OrthoSystems, directs the company's overall market and operational strategy, including high-level product development and key industry partnerships. Kent is a licensed engineer, who has also managed a public water system and is familiar with methods for monitoring water quality. He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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