By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
Protea Biosciences Group Inc., with its new service called ProteaScope, is leading the way in the chemical analysis of cancer cells.
Steve Turner, president and CEO, founded his business in Morgantown in 2001. It was the first biotechnology company to be formed in the state, and also the first company to be created based on technology from West Virginia University.
Protea Biosciences Group has a 10,000-square-foot facility on Hartman Run Road near the Morgantown Municipal Airport, and expanded last year to a second 10,000-square-foot office in the White Birch Building on Pineview Drive. The new space serves as the company’s laboratory services facility.
The Protea team is made up of 42 full-time employees.
Turner explained that the business focuses on developing technology that lets a researcher identify the molecular products of living cells. Cells produce proteins, metabolites, lipids and all kinds of molecules, which are the basis of life and diseased conditions.
All life science research, including agriculture, environmental science and forensics, relies on the ability to identify the molecules being produced by cells, and there’s been a need to do that work more rapidly and comprehensively, he said.
In 2008, Protea Biosciences licensed a technology called LAESI mass spectrometry from George Washington University. This patented technology allows a researcher to identify the molecules produced by cells without ever having to touch the sample itself, which makes the process faster and more accurate, Turner said.
LAESI is being used a lot in the analysis of cancer cells.
“The problem is when you deal with a tissue sample from a tumor, it’s a collection of many different types of cell populations,” he said. “Today, if you just work with extracting from the sample, you don’t get precise information on the tumor cells themselves. This technology lets you select out a specific population of cells that are cancer cells and just analyze those cells.”
Cancer is a molecular disease, and identifying those chemical changes allows researchers to quickly get more precise data on the cancer cells, which means a more accurate diagnosis of cancer and determination of treatments, Turner said.
Protea Biosciences has dedicated most of its resources to developing ProteaScope, which makes use of the LAESI technology to do microscopy-based chemical analysis of tissue, he said. Right now, the team is doing trials with ProteaScope, which is fully developed and has already been published, and commercial services will start in September.
“In many ways, it’s the first really practical and dramatic application of the LAESI technology platform,” Turner said. “We have a number of major cancer centers that are planning to use the service as soon as we have it set up.”
Here’s how the service works: Someone sends Protea a tissue sample from a tumor, for example, and the company puts the sample in the LAESI system. Protea has a web-based program where the researcher or the clinician can look at the cells and guide exactly where the analysis takes place, he said.
Turner said Protea immediately generates data on those cells, which are available to the clinician on the web-based program. The researcher, who is guiding the analysis, almost gets real-time information on the cells he or she is viewing.
“It connects the clinician with the analysis so intimately they can get exactly the information that they want, and they can get it almost immediately,” Turner said.
This technology is sort of like long-distance robotic surgery, he said.
“It’s the first service of its kind in the world, so we’re definitely the technology leader in what we call the chemical analysis of cancer cells,” he said.
Turner expects this service to generate a lot of revenue for Protea, and it will be the backbone of the company. Because ProteaScope is based on the patented LAESI technology, Protea will be able to protect it.
He thinks it’s important for the public to know about this innovative work going on in West Virginia.
“People should be aware that there’s real technology capability in our state,” Turner said.
Email Jessica Borders at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.