Immuto Scientific seeking to speed up drug development

An engineering research team at UW-Madison has invented a device which could dramatically speed up drug development.

Faraz Choudhury is a post-doctoral researcher in the College of Engineering, and a co-founder of Immuto Scientific. The startup’s device automates complex protein analysis as part of the drug discovery process for protein therapeutics.

This $100 billion global industry is growing 10 percent every year, Choudhury says, as major pharmaceutical companies develop protein therapeutics to treat infections, cancer and other conditions.

Those drugs are made in part by proteins that are engineered for specific functions. And the physical structure of those proteins determines how they act in the body.

“Therefore, it is essential to analyze the structure of the protein at several stages in the drug development process,” Choudhury said last week at a research discussion event in Madison, put on by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

The proteins are very complex, making it “extremely difficult” to get a high resolution picture of their structure. That problem is compounded, as pharmaceutical companies have to go through thousands of proteins before they find one that makes it to market.

It takes about 15 years and $1 billion to develop each of these therapeutics, Choudhury says, and current techniques give incomplete data. They’re also very complex and difficult to perform.

“Immuto Scientific’s patented technology is at least 10 times faster than the industry gold standard technique for protein structure analysis,” he said. “We can determine the protein structure in less than 48 hours, where current technology takes several months to get the full structure.”  

The device is a benchtop instrument which can go in any lab, he says. That’s a change from the multimillion-dollar facilities needed for current protein analysis techniques. The expensive machinery required for those facilities can also change the structure of the protein, altering its interaction profile.

“Another very important feature of our technology is we can do analysis in solution and temperatures that mimic what you would find in a human body,” Choudhury said. “From that, we are able to quickly and very accurately what the protein looks like and how it would perform as a drug.”

He says the device can be used by any laboratory technician, as most of the process is automated. The instrument generates a plasma that helps in identification. Like a bright paint, the labeling molecule is pasted over the outer layer of the protein, which a scanning device can use to determine its precise structure.

Choudhury played a video which showed an electronic arm quickly dip a needle in and out of small holes in a flat plastic tray. He says the device can process 96 samples at the same time.

The technology was developed through a collaboration between two laboratories: one in the department of biochemistry, and another in the department of electrical engineering.

Immuto Scientific has two patent applications submitted to WARF, and is in the second phase of WARF’s accelerator program. The company has gone through both generator’s gBETA program and the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Core program.

“We’re currently negotiating a private beta with three pharmaceutical companies,” Choudhury added. “We also have an ongoing collaboration with several high-profile academic labs at UW and several other pharma companies.”

The company has two instruments fully built and ready for commercial use. The device has been used to analyze over 20 different proteins and biomolecules, and results have been published in a scientific journal.

Choudhury says the company is planning to start private beta contracts in the first quarter of 2019. Once those are finalized, Immuto will begin providing protein characterization services to pharmaceutical companies.

“From there we scale up production of our device, and finally we plan to sell our devices to pharma companies that want to bring this in house,” he said.

Immuto has received $150,000 in financing from the WARF Accelerator Program, but hasn’t done any dilutive rounds of funding. Choudhury says the company isn’t looking for investment right now, but is planning to raise funds early next year.