Bloomberg News

Glomming Onto Proteins to Detect Cancer Early On

March 15, 2012

Larry Gold. Photograph: Courtesy SomaLogic, Inc., 2010 via Bloomberg

Larry Gold. Photograph: Courtesy SomaLogic, Inc., 2010 via Bloomberg

(The Q&A incorrectly reported the amount of a Gates Foundation grant as $1.5 million. The correct amount is $500,000.)

Lung cancer is often diagnosed too late for treatment to help. That's part of the reason why it's the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Early detection makes a difference -- 86 percent of patients with timely diagnoses who undergo surgery survive for five years.

Among the most promising technologies to find early-stage lung cancer is a new type of synthetic molecule that identifies and fits onto proteins that cancer and other diseases dump into the blood. Made by SomaLogic in Boulder, Colo., the new molecules detected early-stage lung cancer in the blood of 90 percent of heavy smokers, a 2011 study showed. SomaLogic's molecular cancer sleuths were fast, too, analyzing 1,300 lung cancer samples in two weeks, whereas other methods can take months, require larger samples, or cost more.

The lung cancer protein binders are just a few of the 1,600 molecules SomaLogic has created since Chief Executive Officer Larry Gold, 70, founded it 12 years ago. They are a new type of biomarker that may tip off doctors to illnesses early on. The lung cancer study showed that the technology works, and last November the company licensed its molecules to Novartis AG for drug development. In February, SomaLogic unveiled its technology to the molecular medicine community. They'll be used in tests by Quest Diagnostics this summer. Gold's goal is to create a "wellness chip" that uses the molecules to quickly screen a blood sample for hundreds of diseases.

Gold helped invent the precursor to SomaLogic's protein-snaring molecules 20 years ago, pioneering the science of finding proteins associated with disease and eventually creating new drugs for treatment, a growing field known as proteomics. He also founded NeXstar Pharmaceuticals (merged in 1999 with Gilead Sciences) and co-founded Synergen (acquired by Amgen in 1994). He spoke recently with contributor Karen A. Frenkel:

Q: You believe your protein-identifying molecules are a disruptive technology and envision them packed onto a "wellness chip" that will enable doctors to identify diseases before patients report symptoms. How would it work?

A: Besides lung cancer, SomaLogic has molecules that can detect proteins thrown off by 20 diseases and conditions, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, pancreatic cancer, and mesothelioma [lung cancer due to asbestos exposure], early labor, and infectious diseases. The molecules attach to the protein "gloves" they fit, and can then be detected on a chip by a flash of light with every match.

I've believed since 1997, and haven't wavered once in 15 years, that if we can find 10 or so important biomarkers for every disease, the ultimate value would be to help a physician during annual checkups, because blood is an integrator of all the biology that's happening in your body. And it's not just for disease, but for wellness and nutrition, which constitute holistic medicine.

Our whole business model coalesces into the wellness chip. Measuring 1,000 proteins doesn't cost much more than measuring 10. So sets of our molecules associated with specific diseases can be aggregated onto a chip and patients screened for many diseases at once. A drop of blood would be placed on the chip and it would read out associated diseases. It might also help when you decide to go on a diet or run more.

Q: How would your biomarker molecules help with diet and exercise?

A: There are two integrators of your whole biology -- nutrition, exercise, sleep, disease, everything -- and they are the brain and blood. We believe you can learn amazing things from watching a person's blood over time. We asked our 90 employees to give blood and go to a local restaurant and have a 2,500-calorie meal. Then they gave blood again and we watched a whopping number of things go up and down. So there's a connection between blood and diet. You know your blood is watching you.

Q: What is SomaLogic's business model?

A: Our synthetic molecules operate in our business model in three ways. We license them for making diagnoses, drug discovery and development, and they themselves can act as drugs. Our molecules behave as medications when they inactivate a protein. We have great molecules that have done wonderful jobs in animals. None have been used to treat humans, but we expect a clinical program in the next year or two.

So we are a proteomics play with this vast group of molecules, which is growing by one or two thousand a year. We'll get to 6,000 by 2014. We might as well do the whole human proteom [the collection of all the proteins human cells can make], which is about 20,000 proteins. Our goal is to finish the job by 2016.

Q: But other diagnostic tools such as mass spectrometry are entrenched among researchers. How will you catch up?

A: Almost nobody has been successful doing protein-based diagnostics with mass spectrometry. But it's early in the game. You can't deny people the opportunity to prove I'm wrong. But we don't think of it as competition.

Q: How have you financed your company?

A: We have raised $200 million from venture capital, angels, and our pharmaceutical partners Novartis, NEC, Otsuka, and Quest, and NeXstar money that I plowed back in. We also get some revenue from licensing. Revenues this year were $20 million. We operated at a loss last year, but expect much more in 2012, although it won't be enough to drive us to profitability, which we expect in 2013.

Q: And you also recently got a grant.

A: We got a $500,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to make a diagnostic test for tuberculosis. That will take less than a year.

Q: What did you think when you saw your new molecules?

A: You look at them and you're aghast at their extraordinary beauty. We have shown people 3-D structures of them and one will be published in the next few months.

Q: What is the company's future?

A: The $40 billion monoclonal antibodies market is a small fraction of what we're going after. We will never displace all antibody drugs. They work beautifully. But our molecules will operate within that growing market. It's anybody's guess what fraction they might ultimately enjoy. It could be 10 percent. No one can possibly know.

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen A. Frenkel at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nick Leiber at

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