The Detroit-based life sciences company Asterand (LSE: ATD) recently announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expanded its collaboration with BioSeek, a wholly owned Asterand subsidiary, on the ToxCast environmental compound testing program.
The EPA first began working with BioSeek, which is based in South San Francisco, in 2007. The new agreement includes an additional $696,000 in funding for BioSeek, bringing the total value of the collaboration to approximately $5 million over the past five years.
Under the ToxCast screening program, the EPA sends BioSeek compounds from herbicides, pesticides, solvents, dyes, detergents, and more to test for safety. What BioSeek has that other companies don’t is a proprietary testing method that uses human cells to predict a chemical’s effect on the body.
Predicting the toxicity of environmental compounds using a complex human-cell platform is superior to animal testing, contends Ivan Plavec, BioSeek’s vice-president of business development (and co-inventor of the technology, which is called BioMap Systems). The technology employs so-called primary cells, which can be used in ways similar to a standard cell line with one key difference: Primary cells retain the properties they had in the human body for a short period of time after they’re transfered to a lab setting, making BioSeek’s data potentially far more accurate. “The testing results are more representative of what might actually happen when the compound interacts with the human body,” Plavec explains.
Though BioSeek tests the compounds, it sends its data back to the EPA for analysis. Plavec says the fact that the EPA has found BioSeek’s data to be “extremely rich in terms of biological activity” has been a great validation. “It’s still a work in progress, but we’re very encouraged,” Plavec adds. “We’re optimistic that some of the assays could, in fact, become a required test for environmental compounds.”
So far, BioSeek has tested more than 1,000 compounds for the EPA. BioSeek also works with pharmaceutical companies to test their compounds in the context of human biology, Plavec says, helping them figure out which drugs to take to the clinical-testing stage. Clinical testing is a vastly expensive endeavor—and one big pharma wants to avoid for drugs that have the potential to be toxic.
Plavec says the work BioSeek is doing with the EPA is being closely watched by other government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry to see, for instance, if a similar program can be used by the FDA to test pharmaceutical compounds.
“This is technology that allows the first insight into how a compound would affect the human body on a pre-clinical level,” Plavec says. “The hope is that toxicity not detected in animal models would be predicted by our assays. This is a way of reducing failure that could save pharmaceutical companies huge amounts.”
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