Build it and They will Come
I am pleased to profile Dr. Gerry Shaw, a Professor at the University of Florida and also the Head of EnCor Biotechnology Inc. His story is a guide for incubating and spinning out a successful biotech company (EnCor Biotechnology, Inc.) from a university research laboratory. It should provide an inspiration for fledgling entrepreneurs as the model required little capital investment and has enjoyed profitable growth.
Gerry’s major area of research interest can be summarized as the study of cellular changes resulting from central nervous system damage and disease states. These changes help neuroscience researchers understand the progression and hopefully discover root causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. Understanding which proteins are involved in particular disease states also has the potential of identifying targets for therapies.
The story starts with Gerry’s Post Doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, in what was at the time West Germany. Here he joined the world renowned laboratory of Klaus Weber and Mary Osborn. This lab had pioneering several important techniques, notably SDS-PAGE for protein analysis and the use of antibodies in immunocytochemistry. Later, after Gerry left the same lab made key contributions leading to the routine use of RNAi in “knock down” of normal cellular proteins. The lab had developed antibodies to tag the subunit proteins of microtubules, microfilaments, intermediate filaments and other cellular proteins, and then used these antibodies to visualize the proteins in immunofluorescence microscopy and on western blots. This enabled researchers to look at changes in the cellular expression of these proteins in powerful new way. These methods have become vital tools for understanding normal cellular function and what happens when cells transition from healthy to diseased states. This lab was an ideal location for Gerry to learn how to make quality monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies. Good antibody reagents are vital for the correct interpretation of immunofluorescence microscopy and western blots, and he was soon supplying his reagents to friends, collaborators and other researchers all around the world. Success is value as antibodies that do not as work as expected waste research time and resources, while quality reagents soon become appreciated and may get to be standard lab reagents.
University of Florida
The University of Florida, in Gainesville imported his expertise when Gerry joined the institute in 1986. Here he continued to make antibodies to Neurofilaments or NFs and other Neuronal-Glial Markers. It’s hard to keep a good thing a secret and Gerry faced growing demand from all over for these reagents. This proved a drain both financially and in terms of time commitment, as well as a significant conflict of interest with his basic biomedical research program.
|Image: Co-culture of embryonic mouse hippocampal neurons and astrocytes. Primary embryonic hippocampal neurons at 7 days in vitro, were stained with Microtubule Associated Protein-2 (MAP, green) to enable the visualization of the dendritic arbors. These neurons were cultured on top of a monolayer of primary cortical astrocytes, stained with an antibody directed against|
Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein (GFAP, red). The cell nuclei were visualized by staining with 4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI, blue). BMC Image of the Month October 2010
As a result Gerry took his first entrepreneurial step by selling his most popular reagents in bulk initially to Chemicon (now Millipore-Merck). Like any new business venture, he did not really know what to expect. It should come as no surprise that the reagents sold like hot cakes and the check started rolling in. Other immunoreagent companies approached Gerry and soon he was supplying antibodies to pretty much every major biotechnology vendor.
ABC Biologicals to EnCor Biotechnology Inc.
Success breeds success and as sales increased over the 1990s, it was time to form an independent business and so ABC Biologicals Inc. was incorporated in 1999 initially to buy equipment and develop licensing agreements. Since Gerry had income from sales, he was in the unusual and enviable position of not needing grants, investors, loans or cash from any other source, and so could proceed with almost total independence. The company was renamed EnCor Biotechnology Inc. in 2002, and at the same time moved into the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator, a lab dedicated to commercialization of intellectual property generated by the faculty of the University of Florida. The University of Florida is unusually experienced at this and is well known for launching Gatorade, Trusopt and many other products. After 4 years EnCor “graduated” from the Incubator and now occupies a facility in Gainesville. The company now has almost 100 products with many more under development. This is good news for the Neuroscience community.
The EnCor-Neuromics Connection
Neuromics provides EnCor Biotechnology reagents to researchers studying neuro-degeneration, neuro-regeneration, neuro-development, neural stem cells, mood disorders, brain injury and spinal cord injury. My customers have found EnCor’s reagents to be rock solid and versatile.
In addition, Gerry and his team have proved adept at culturing our E18 hippocampal neurons and ESC derived hN2TM primary neurons. This is a big plus as we can actually see how the cells and markers could resonate together for use in cell based assays.
|Image: E18 hippocampal neurons stained with Tau (red) and Doublecortin (green). The two proteins overlap in the proximal dendrites (yellow) Axons (low doublecortin content) are red. Blue staining is the nuclear DNA.|
I am excited by the glimpse of the future that Gerry shared. We can expect many new, novel and important markers in the coming months and years. In addition, he will be manufacturing various Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA). These kits have the potential to help clinicians diagnose the early onset of diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
For example, his company currently sells an ELISA kit for sensitive detection of Phosphorylated Neurofilament-H (pNF-H). Expression of this protein is up regulated in a variety of damage and disease states, and can be used to accurately quantify this up regulation. The kit can also detect pNF-H in the sera and spinal cord fluid (CSF) of animals with spinal cord and brain lesions. This protein is not normally found in sera or CSF, so its presence indicates recent axonal injury as a result of either damage or disease. This suggests pNF-H is a useful biomarker of neuronal and more specifically axonal injury or degeneration, a suggestion supported by a growing list of basic science publications on various animal models and patient types from Gerry’s research lab (e.g. Shaw et al. 2005, Lewis et al. 2008, Boylan et al. 2009, Lewis et al. 2010).
Given the capabilities of EnCor’s markers, the development of more kits is coming. There could be a day in the not distant future where they give clinicians tools to better diagnose and monitor serious neurodegenerative diseases, leading to better disease treatment and management.
I will keep you informed on Gerry’s and EnCor’s future developments.