Accium Biosciences, Pioneer of Particle Accelerator for Drug Development, Finds Niche
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and was able to confirm that there was interest from big drugmakers in such a machine, Arjomand says. WRF ended up leading a round worth almost $2.5 million at the end of 2005 so that Arjomand could install the machine and get the business really going.
It was a bootstrap operation until then, but Arjomand realized that he needed to settle on a location because with a 15-ton machine, that takes engineers a month to put together, it’s not something you plan to move when you outgrow your initial office space in two years. So, he scouted locations, and found a friendly ear in David Sabey, the real estate developer who built the refurbished James Tower at 550 17th Avenue, the old Providence Hospital.
When Arjomand met with Sabey, the developer fell for the tool immediately, and even decided to invest in the company. “He said something like, ‘This is a gonzo machine. I want that machine in my building,’” Arjomand says.
Then Accium set up shop. The business model is built on service. A pharmaceutical company runs an initial clinical trial for safety in about a dozen people, and sends all sorts of blood, urine, or tissue samples to Accium. It pays something like $100,000 to $250,000 to run all the samples through the machine, and gets a report about a month later. It’s the sort of result the company can then send to FDA to answer its questions about how the drug is absorbed and metabolized.
That side of the business has become cash-flow positive on operations in its third year, and now supports an operation of 14 employees, Arjomand says. The company hasn’t drawn much attention because pharmaceutical companies generally don’t like to publish the results with the machine in peer-reviewed journals, although that may still come, he says. “If they find a good thing, the pharmaceutical companies like to keep it to themselves. They don’t like to let competitors know they’re doing this,” he says. That’s why Accium doesn’t disclose its customer names.
Within the next six months, Accium will have to decide whether to order a second machine to keep up with demand, Arjomand says. And, it’s thinking about doing a spin-off business which would use the machine for personalized diagnostics.
That’s the medical angle that I heard Greg Foltz, a neurosurgeon at Swedish, describe on the tour last week. In the same building as Accium, he’s cutting out brain tumors, and giving post-operative chemotherapy to patients. The comprehensive center is analyzing those tumor samples for all sorts of genomic abnormalities, on next-generation sequencing machines and microarrays from Applied Biosystems. But the accelerator mass spec can answer a different question. It can take a tumor sample and look at how much of the chemotherapy got to its target, and whether a second rough, or a higher dose is necessary, Foltz says.
Arjomand has an even grander vision of using the machine for predictive medicine. The idea is that a patient walks in to see the doctor, gets diagnosed with a brain tumor, and doctors consider treatment options. It’s possible to give the patient a tiny “pre-dose” of chemo that’s harmless, take a tumor sample after surgery, to see just how efficiently he or she metabolizes this drug. “By the time they are recovering from surgery, we could know the right dose of chemotherapy they should be on,” he says.
That work is being supported with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, so it will still be a few years before we’ll know how useful that may be for patient care. The pharmaceutical industry service model will continue to pay the bills in the meantime.
In the future, Accium will probably end up being acquired by a contract laboratory or clinic as demand continues to climb, he says. The market still has a lot of room to grow. “Only about 1 percent of pharmaceutical industry scientists had heard of this back in 2000, and now about 60 percent to 70 percent have heard of it,” he says. “But less than 2 to 3 percent have actually used it in a study.” As word spreads at trade shows, he said he’s going to need a new machine. “There are periods when we are running it day and night.” None of that work is going to enlighten us on ancient civilizations, or end up on the cover of National Geographic, but it might help people get new medicines they otherwise wouldn’t get.