Particle accelerators are used as tools of archaeology that tell you the approximate age of King Tut. But Seattle-based Accium Biosciences has hit upon a way to use these tools to improve everyday prescription drug development.
I discovered this enormous cylinder—which weighs a whopping 15 tons—on a tour last week of Swedish Medical Center’s new comprehensive brain tumor treatment center at James Tower. (More on the brain tumor application later.) The machine, actually called an accelerator mass spectrometer, is one of just three tools in the world that’s sensitive enough to break down a blood, urine, or tissue sample to count individual atoms. It can say how much of a drug is being absorbed into the body, how fast it gets there, and how quickly it breaks down, even in the slightest traces. The machine, which Accium (sounds like Axiom) set up in January 2006, is now being used under contracts with five of the world’s 10 largest drugmakers, and it’s booked around the clock from now through much of December, says Accium president and founder Ali Arjomand.
So how did we make the transition from using these things for archaeological carbon-14 dating to the pharmaceutical business? The story starts when Arjomand was studying for a doctorate in nutrition at the University of California-Davis in the early 1990s. He learned about the accelerator at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and made arrangements to run experiments that looked at folic acid absorption in the body, which was unknown. The machine could detect trace amounts of this vitamin, which other instruments couldn’t, and the findings partly led the U.S. government to raise the recommended daily allowance of folic acid for pregnant women.
“It was a landmark experiment,” says Arjomand. He had ideas of how this might be commercially applied, but didn’t pursue them. “In ’98, ’99 and 2000, it was too early to build a business. Even though the technology was rock solid, only about 1 percent of all scientists in the pharmaceutical industry had heard of it.”
Arjomand moved to Seattle in 2000 to do something completely different, joining Mukilteo, WA-based CombiMatrix, a maker of DNA microarray chips. He stayed there until 2004, while keeping an eye on what was happening with accelerator mass specs.
While he was doing business development at CombiMatrix, the one other site in the world that had an accelerator mass spec for drug development started getting some commercial use and acceptance from European regulators, he says. It was at York University in the U.K., which eventually spun off a company called Xceleron to perform contracts for pharma companies. American pharmaceutical companies sought out some of the capacity at Livermore, but the machine there wasn’t really geared up to meet the demand, he says.
So Arjomand decided to try to meet it. He figured he needed to pull together $2.5 million to $3 million to have a new machine built for his company by the one manufacturer in the U.S., National Electrostatics of Middleton, WI. He got about $700,000 for the business from angel investors, friends, and family, which was good enough for a down payment on the machine and to support him and one other employee for about a year while it was under construction.
During that year, Arjomand went around to venture capitalists, who mostly weren’t interested in his idea of a fee-for-service model with the pharmaceutical industry because it doesn’t have the same home-run potential as selling a proprietary machine on a desktop, he says. Pharma companies already have liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer machines, at about $300,000 to $400,000, from companies like Applied Biosystems and Agilent Technologies. They are workhorses that do much of this same job, Arjomand says. A more expensive accelerator machine could only be justified if those workhorses weren’t sensitive enough in all cases, for drugs that use tiny doses, or drugs that are poorly absorbed in the body, he says.