Proteomics at your service

By Iain Scott
Tuesday, 20 May, 2003

The service centre model for proteomics has taken off in the last few years. Iain Scott looks at some of the groups around Australia who are staking out their claims in this area.

Gary Cobon Chief operating officer, Australian Proteome Analysis Facility

The Australian Proteome Analysis Facility was established in 1995 with a far-sighted Commonwealth Major National Research Facilities grant, well before the rest of the world had grasped the importance of the potential of the science.

Last year the grant was renewed with a fresh $16 million, and APAF launched into the next phase of its existence, as the region's pre-eminent proteomics research and service facility.

Prof Gary Cobon, APAF's chief operating officer, explains that the grant enabled APAF to revitalise its equipment at its Macquarie University headquarters, and also at its TGR Biosciences node in Adelaide.

Cobon said APAF, with almost a decade of history behind it, had seen its customers base develop from "more progressive experimental research" in its early days, to clients from CRCs, biomedical research facilities, hospitals and pharmas seeking functional proteomics solutions.

"There has been an education process," Cobon says. "Initially, some people claimed proteomics could solve everyone's problems, which it can't... and it's pretty expensive.

"Many people are surprised by the cost, but once you realise what you're getting for the money, generally people find it is good value.

APAF now has about 13 staff -- 'about', because its contract research charter means it must necessarily be flexible. The facility takes on contract work, or research staff can move in and be trained by APAF staff on particular projects. That's important as about 30 per cent of the organisation's workload comes from outside Australia -- mostly south-east Asia but also Europe and the US.

Cobon says APAF doesn't lose sleep over the notion that companies or research organisations will simply buy their own proteomics set-up and bring their work in-house.

"You've got to have a very large amount of work to justify the expense of the equipment, which is still evolving," he says. "People will invest in mass specs, but they will find they need to invest again in two years, or work with an organisation like us."

Richard Lipscombe Managing director, Proteomics International

Dr Richard Lipscombe, the managing director of Perth-based Proteomics International, was working in a protein lab at the University of WA a few years ago when he realised the demand for a stand-alone contract proteomics set-up in the state: "we had no funding except for the work we were bringing in," he says of his days in the lab. "The universities bought the gear, but weren't working to capacity."

Lipscombe and his colleagues set up Proteomics International about two years ago, with a staff of three. Now it employs about nine, at a few sites in Perth: UWA, the State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre at Murdoch University, and at a hospital.

Since it launched, Lipscombe has seen the company attract a steadily growing number of clients, including an increasing number from the eastern states and a few private-sector biotechs. And in view of its name, Lipscombe is obviously keen to see Proteomics International become something of a regional expert as well. "But moving [into areas outside Australia] is time-consuming."

Lipscombe says he has found the most difficult aspect of the company's job has been educating academic and hospital groups about the potential of proteomics, particularly in WA where the biocluster model is far from well-developed.

"Most [research] groups are academically based," he says. "They all want things done but they want to do it for peanuts. That is a mindset that will take a couple of years to change. It's a slow process."

Meanwhile, hype from manufacturers of proteomics equipment has led to a situation where there is "too much gear and not enough skills," says Lipscombe. "You go to meetings and they're talking about multi-directional mass spec, but the reality is people only want to run one or two samples.

"If you compare [the situation now] with the Australian market a couple of years ago, back then everyone wanted to do it but no one had the gear. I think there is still a large number of groups out there that haven't realised [proteomics'] potential. There will be an increase [in business] over time, from a service point of view, if you can hang in there.

"The plus side is there are biotech companies who know what it can do, and that has a trickle-down effect."

Ian Smith Baker Institute

Last year Prof Ian Smith, associate director of Melbourne's Baker Institute, took delivery of an Amersham integrated proteomics system, leading to a dramatic boost in the amount of proteomics work at the organisation.

Not only is it being used by Baker staff, says Smith, but also by researchers at Monash University, the Monash Institute for Reproduction and Development, Melbourne University, the Red Cross, the Royal Women's Hospital, the Brisbane-based Institute for Molecular Biology and a handful of private-sector biotechs based at the Baker precinct.

A broad array of projects has been taken on by the facility, including seeking novel proteins in receptor regulation, cell regulation, trafficking, and growth changes in protein expression in the hearts of diabetics.

That suggests a rapid embracing of the technology. But like colleagues around the country, Smith says there has been an element of education in his role, despite a fee structure that only charges cost price to academic researchers.

"The challenge is to convince universities of the utility of proteomics," he says. "What we're finding is a large component of proteomics is data processing and validation. People look at the cost and think mass specs are quick, but it's the front end [that is time-consuming].

"We're now working with biotechnology companies, which was always something we aimed to do. But we have a collegiate responsibility to first serve our colleagues, and we're encouraging people to take custody of their work themselves."

Smith's deal with Amersham allows the company to present the facility as a regional showcase for its technology, which means it is regularly upgraded.

In keeping with the facility's academic base, Smith says he doesn't see the Baker set-up as competing with others around Australia. "If there's an opportunity to collaborate outside Australia it would be largely Baker-based," he says. "Personally, I like to have some custody of the science as well as do contract work."

Keith Williams CEO, Proteome Systems

Proteome Systems CEO Dr Keith Williams says he always swore the company would never try to "eke out a living" in contract services.

But last month, the ribbon was cut on the installation of a PSL ProteomIQ platform at Charles River Laboratories in Massachusetts and the launch of Charles River Proteomics Services.

The main incentive to take the step into services, he says, is Charles River's size and position. "They get a terrific response from big pharma," he says. "That's going to translate into business."

Williams is characteristically forceful when describing the "hand-to-mouth existence" of smaller proteomics service companies and is keen to point out that PSL was always intended for bigger things.

The company, which was formed in xxx, is now Australia's biggest unlisted biotech. Between its Sydney and Boston facilities it has 150 staff. "Last year we sold $1 million in technology," Williams says. "This year it will be $11 million or $12 million. We won't do [a tenfold increase] again next year, but we'll probably at least double it."

The next stage in the company's development, he says, is the diagnostics market, with its wheat scan technology, tuberculosis diagnostic and deal with fellow Australian biotech VRI BioMedical. And the next stage after that is drug discovery and deals with big pharma.

"We all know that doing deals with big pharma is not easy," he says. "You can't do it in a company with 10 people."

Last week PSL installed ProteomIQ at the Japanese Iberica-Kurume Translational Research Laboratories, where it will drive pharma research. On the back of that deal, Williams says, is PSL's discovery program, which includes osteoporosis research, making use of the Japanese lab's access to human clinical samples.

Not being a contract company makes a huge difference in this case, he says: "If you're solving problems you're not focusing on throughput or the process -- you're focussing on solving the problem."

Williams says the need for proteomics won't diminish, but predicts a shrinking pool of companies in the space. He points to Swiss company GeneProt's recent decision to halve its staff numbers as an indication of the "bloody hard yards" involved in running a successful proteomics business: "If they couldn't do it with $50m in the bank..."

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