Seattle is known for spawning companies that grow up to define entirely new industries like Amazon, Starbucks, and Costco. One startup with similar aspirations for a new niche of the biotech world, Seattle-based Adaptive TCR, is making huge strides in an industry that didn’t exist a couple years ago, and would have been unfathomable then.
This little company has started to emerge since Xconomy had the scoop back in March that it had spun out from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with $4.5 million in angel financing. Almost entirely based on buzz around presentations by its scientific founders, in its first year, Adaptive TCR built a customer roster that includes 50 academic research centers. They are writing “five-figure” checks for a service that provides vividly detailed profiles of how an individual’s immune system adapts on a genetic level to pathogens, and which can monitor exposure to drugs and vaccines, says CEO Chad Robins.
Adaptive TCR, Robins says, is on a trajectory to turn profitable in its second year, 2011. It is in what he calls “serious discussions” to offer its technology to five of the world’s top 10 pharma companies. Further down the road, it has a chance to dominate at least one, and maybe two, new industries that will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he says.
“People originally discounted this, saying ‘Oh, this is a service business,’ and then they forget about it,” Robins says. “It’s a several hundred million dollar business on clinical trials alone. It’s a matter for us of scaling.”
These are the early days in the business of immune system profiling. The idea has now become feasible because of the breakneck pace of innovation in both life sciences (faster/cheaper DNA sequencing) and computing (low-cost, large-scale cloud computing data servers).
Those technologies have enabled Adaptive TCR to pursue its own big idea. While the 3 billion letters of DNA that make up a human genome are consistent in almost every cell of the body, the immune system’s B cells and T cells are an exception. In these cells, DNA gets shuffled around in bafflingly complex combinations, allowing T cells to recognize specific invaders, such as flu viruses, and bacteria that people get exposed to over time, and B cells to produce specific antibodies against those intruders. Each person is thought to have 50 to 100 million unique T cell receptors in their immune repertoire, for instance, so that’s a lot of DNA getting reshuffled around in novel combinations that nobody really knows anything about.
Scientists today generally have no way to look at that exquisite complexity in individual immune systems, and tend to look at generalized markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein.
The new immune profiling system is supposed to be far more sensitive. It’s the kind of thing that ought to tell researchers how susceptible a patient is to certain infections, or might show whether a vaccine in early development is doing what it is supposed to do. Scientists have long known that elderly people lose much of their immune repertoire as they age, but it’s now becoming possible to actually see how specific defenses fade over time, laying the groundwork for new vaccine strategies, Robins says. One collaborator at the Hutch is using the system to see how quickly a patient’s immune system regains strength after a bone marrow transplant. That could tell physicians when it’s OK to quit giving powerful antiviral meds that cause side effects, Robins says.
The founding team of Adaptive TCR isn’t exactly full … Next Page »