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NIH-funded genetic sequencing tool speeds drug discovery, disease diagnostics

Today physicists at Wake Forest University and NanoMedica, their biotechnology company partner, received a $700,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bring to market a new drug-discovery tool using next-generation genetic sequencing.

The technology, Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead, would be the first bead-based drug-discovery tool to use the latest genetic sequencing technologies, making drug and diagnostics discovery significantly more efficient.

Pharmaceutical companies would use the technology as a sort of Google search for new drugs sending the scientists a protein marker of the disease for which they want to find a treatment, and letting Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead test millions of possibilities all at once.

"Next-gen is much faster and cheaper, and no one is using it for drug discovery as far as we know," said Martin Guthold, associate professor of physics and co-inventor of Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead. "It miniaturizes and massively parallelizes sequencing on beads in little wells, so we can do millions of sequencing actions in unison to find potential drug candidates to treat a specific disease."

The NIH awarded the funding through its Small Business Innovation Research program, so Wake Forest will share the funds with NanoMedica, a Winston-Salem company that has licensed the patent for Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead.

The technology uses a roughly one-inch-square chip, similar to a computer chip. A football-shaped area in the middle of the chip is filled with millions of wells. Each well contains a bead, to which the researchers attach a potential drug molecule.

"Each chip contains millions of potential drug candidates," Guthold said. "We know the position and identity of each, because we can associate a potential drug molecule with the sequence in each well."

To find a disease-drug match, a pharmaceutical company would supply the target for instance, a protein called Src kinase associated with many cancers. The researchers would combine the fluorescently labeled protein with a neutral solution and flow it over the chip.

If a well glows fluorescently, indicating that the protein target bound to the bead in the well, it contains a drug candidate that is potentially useful in treating the disease. The pharmaceutical company then can begin testing the drug in the lab.

Though the Wake Forest-NanoMedica research team has focused on drug discovery, Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead also could be used for more accurate, speedy medical diagnoses.

"If you want to see if a biopsy is cancerous, you could use diagnostic molecules that were discovered with this technology. If a biopsy sample binds to certain diagnostic molecules, then it's cancerous," Guthold said.

The research team includes Keith Bonin, Jed Macosko and Jason Gagliano of the Wake Forest physics department.

Wake Forest and NanoMedica also have received a two-year, $160,000 Collaborative Funding Grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center to refine Next-Gen Lab-on-Bead for commercial use.

"We have made a major commitment to purchasing expensive equipment that's beyond the realm of most startups, and that's a risk we took because we are confident that applying next-gen sequencing to drug discovery is really novel," said Roger Cubicciotti, NanoMedica president/CEO.

According to a recent report by Frost & Sullivan, next-generation genetic sequencing is expected to boom in the next five years as researchers explore drug-discovery and diagnostic applications. That will make it one of the fastest-growing markets in the biomedical industry, the report says.


Contact: Katie Neal
Wake Forest University

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