By Wendy Holdren
For the Daily Telegraph
A biotechnology company based in Morgantown has developed a game-changing instrument that tremendously speeds up disease diagnosis.
Protea Biosciences, founded in 2001, has created the LAESI-MS (Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionization Mass Spectrometry), which will allow physicians and researchers to analyze living cells in the body.
Steve Turner, CEO of Protea, explained exactly what this means for patients.
“For example, if you have a mole and you’re in a physician’s office and they would like to know if it’s melanoma, or just a mole, today that takes weeks. You have a biopsy and a sample is sent to a lab and even then, they’re not sure. But this instrument will allow you, within a few minutes, to analyze the sample in the office and identify the molecular changes in the cell that would indicate whether it is a melanoma cell or not.”
Turner, who has over 40 years experience in building biotech companies, said the LAESI took five years to develop and a lot of hard work and investment capitol.
Another example where the LAESI will prove beneficial is during cancer surgery.
“It’s a challenge for the surgeon to know if his margins are clear or not, in other words, whether he got it all. Right now, to look at the margins to know if he’s removed all the tumor, it takes about an hour while the patient is still on the table and it is somewhat subjective. It is not precise.”
With the LAESI technology, a physician can very quickly identify if there are tumor cells present and with confidence complete the surgery.
Turner said Protea is working with the cancer center in Morgantown to analyze margins in head and neck cancer surgery.
“We’ve been working with Dr. Laura Gibson, chief scientist there, on her analysis of leukemia cells to show that we can identify molecular changes and use that information to improve medical care.”
The new instrument has already generated a lot of buzz in the medical community and has already won several awards.
They recently shipped the first commercial instrument to the University of Amsterdam and are still receiving inquiries from companies and academic centers all over the world.
“It’s very exciting to look out and see the improvement in disease diagnosis that’s going to result from the completion of this new technology,” Turner said. “It’s especially gratifying because of the impact in West Virginia because the company was founded and built here. Most of our employees are actually WVU graduates, including our scientists.”
Turner, originally from California, has built five biotechnologies in Maryland, one of which is Life Technologies, which is on the New York stock exchange.
“Eleven years ago, I came to WVU, met with a group of chemists and I was very impressed with the work they’re doing, so we set out together to found Protea in 2001.”
Although patients and the medical community at large will reap the benefits of Protea’s new developments, West Virginia University students are also receiving the rewards.
Graduate students have been sponsored in multiple departments, internships are awarded each summer, and students are given access to technology to generate data sets.
“We do all we can to help the scientists at the university to grow and develop.”
Another upcoming development at Protea is single-cell analysis, which Turner said should be up and running by the end of the year.
“It’s a pure form of data,” he explained. “If I analyze cancer today, I’m looking at a mixture of cells, so your data tends to be an average. If you can analyze one cell at a time, your data is clean and you have a perfect view of what’s going on with that cancer cell population.”
Protea Biosciences is located at 955 Hartman Run Road in Morgantown. For more information, call 1-877-776-8321 or visit www.proteabio.com.