VARI Commercializes Medical Software

October 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Research Institute has commercialized its “most significant” product to date, a medical software application called XenoBase that’s being marketed under licensing agreements, the first of which was hammered out two weeks ago. 

The software is designed to synthesize medical research findings more quickly.

XenoBase is the brainchild of scientific investigators Craig Webb, Ph.D., and Jeremy Miller, Ph.D., of the institute’s Laboratory of Tumor Metastasis and Angiogenesis. XenoBase is said to be the first biologic software application with the ability to integrate data from a number of sources all at once, including data from clinical trials, animal models, patient medical histories, and individual profiles of genes, chromosomes and proteins.

“We’ve basically condensed a process that used to take months into minutes,” Webb said.

He and Miller spent four years developing XenoBase. Its first customer is a New-Jersey-based pharmaceutical company that has signed a one-year, non-exclusive agreement to use XenoBase to support new drug development.

The institute would not release the name of either that company or the two companies that participated in earlier pilot studies. Webb would only say that all three are among the Top 10 drug manufacturers in the country.

VARI is mum, too, on the value of the licensing agreement. Webb simply referred to it as “a significant investment” that will help fund further development of XenoBase. Money generated under the new licensing contract goes into a funding pool for all the institute’s research projects.

Webb said XenoBase can be used as a continual drug discovery and development tool to help researchers determine the effects of a particular therapy and predict the best treatments for disease. Researchers and physicians can also use the software application as a diagnostic support tool to uncover patterns in molecular and biological data, drug responsiveness, illness, medical outcomes and other factors that would lead to improved diagnosis and treatment. The idea is to collect, track and manage data in patient care, clinical trials and pre-clinical research in the laboratory, Webb said.

“We generate vast amounts of molecular data now through new technologies like gene expression profiling, so now we can put that altogether and find relationships within the data that could be useful for new diagnostic or treatment strategies going forward.

“If you believe in the future of molecular medicine, in the future it will be possible to predict clinical events when there’s early detection, to accurately diagnose what the condition is, and then treat it based on the personalized nature of disease in the patient. How do you go about collecting the data that’s needed to train the computer to look for patterns? We broke it down into the various components needed to go through that process.”

Patrick Kelly, vice president of communications and development for the Van Andel Institute, said the institute has developed other intellectual property but that XenoBase is the most significant product to come out of VARI thus far.

Kelly said the institute had not yet decided whether XenoBase will be offered only under licensing agreements. Since the New Jersey company’s contract is non-exclusive, VARI has the option of putting together licensing agreements with other companies.

Webb recalled that when the project started he had a lot of ideas about how such a software application could be developed. So he pulled in Miller, who had programming experience, and the project evolved daily from that point on.

“There was no way the NIH (National Institutes of Health) would have funded this because it was too big and too ambitious. Luckily we had the Van Andel endowment to cover the development of this,” Webb said.

The researchers’ efforts also were supported by an $86,000 grant from the Michigan Universities Commercialization Initiative.

“The drug company provided us with two demo sets that completely blinded us as to everything about the drugs they were using, and (the) diseases,” Webb recalled. “We made a lot of predictions that were all correct, such as who would respond to treatment and who wouldn’t.”

VARI scientists are now educating the New Jersey company on how to use the software application, and will install it in the coming weeks. Webb said VARI scientists would have to be involved at least initially, working with the company’s scientists on how to optimize XenoBase’s use.

“This first deal is on a relatively small scale for this company,” he said. “This is just the first year. If they like it, they’re looking at maybe global integration, and that would be a separate deal.”

Webb said that he and Miller did some early work on the project with Memorial Sloan-Kettering, John Hopkins and the University of California-San Francisco. On a smaller scale, they’re also working on demo sets for local institutions such as Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s and Metropolitan Hospital.

He and Miller worked alone on XenoBase’s development for the first three years, and just last year brought in consultants with commercialization expertise to help get the application ready for installation and to do all the necessary documentation.

Although the target market for the product is still evolving, large pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies are showing a lot of interest, Webb said. He expects more companies will come forward in the next six months. The clinical diagnostic market is a good target for the software application, too. He said physicians and labs can apply XenoBase quite simply to their organization’s operating system.

Webb said VARI’s business development office constantly monitors and evaluates technological discoveries that come out of the institute, and puts together short portfolios on those discoveries that are distributed to companies identified as potential users. That’s how VARI hooked up with the New Jersey pharmaceutical giant.    

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