Vivonetics: Enabling Drug Discovery and Disease Diagnostics Through Tiny Molecular Beacons

Vivonetics is bringing several Georgia Tech technologies to market that could dramatically change drug discovery process and disease diagnosis. The company, which was recently accepted into the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), is developing and commercializing nano-scale sensors called molecular beacons.

“Our molecular beacon technologies provide a novel way to detect gene transcripts in live cells. Such an invention may be used to measure biomarkers, which are used to assess a patient’s disease state and thus provide vital information with regards to how well a patient is responding to a drug regimen,” said Thanh Doan, director of business & research development for Vivonetics. “Molecular beacons can also be applied to drug discovery. For instance, a drug that turns on a gene can be discovered by looking at the amount of light emitted by the molecular beacons in living cells.”

A molecular beacon is a hairpin oligonucleotide probe that fluoresces when it binds to a target RNA molecule. Vivonetics uses two technologies – dual FRET molecular beacons and peptide-linked molecular beacons – developed in the laboratory of Gang Bao, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. These technologies offer improvements over what is currently in use through its specificity, signal-to-noise aspect and its unique application for cells and tissues. Company officials say this is a key advance for detecting specific genes in living cells.

The company was founded in 2003 by Bao and Karim Godamunne, a VentureLab fellow. Vivonetics has already received Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR) Phase 1 and Phase 2 grants from the National Cancer Institute totaling more than $1.8 million. Other funding has come from Georgia Research Alliance and VentureLab.

The market is right for a company like Vivonetics. Of an estimated $682 billion in revenue reported by the global drug development industry, $126 billion was generated within the biotechnology sector for 2006. The in-vitro diagnostic market reported $21 billion in revenue (2003) with $2.2 billion specifically in molecular diagnostics. The areas in which Vivonetics is working – infectious diseases, immune disease, cancer and hematology – account for 36 percent of the pie.

“We can create drug discovery research tools with this technology that assess genetic transcripts, screen for drugs in living cells, assess levels of toxicity and isolate characterized cells and tissues,” Doan said. “This will be of great value to the pharmaceutical industry.”

Vivonetics will also market diagnostic kits that can detect biomarkers in clinical samples. According to Doan, existing in-vitro diagnostics are limited by turn-around time, sensitivity, availability of commercial probes and non-standardized methods.

Vivonetics is located on the Georgia Tech campus in the ATDC Biosciences Center. The company plans to use its startup time to build relations with academic and pharmaceutical experts for its research programs, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, viral infection and stem cells.

“During this initial phase, we are optimizing our core technologies while understanding the ins and outs, the advantages and disadvantages, to applying the technique,” Doan said. “We will develop molecular beacon assays and hence commercialize our technologies. The academic research community is just now beginning to use it, and in another five years or so, pharmaceuticals will adopt our technologies.”

Vivonetics expects to be manufacturing and distributing diagnostic kits and research tools and assays to customers within the next five years. It is anticipated that the company will take off exponentially once its products are validated and others begin using it.

Doan expects that Vivonetics’ association with ATDC will help propel the company to the next stage: “It is important for us as a young company to be able to tap into the experts within ATDC, whether it’s in venture capital, marketing or sales. We will be able to access the local and state community for fundraising and networking opportunities without having to reinvent the wheel.”

Vivonetics is a graduate company of VentureLab, a one-stop center for technology innovation that provides comprehensive assistance to Georgia Tech faculty members, research staff members and graduate students who want to form startup companies to commercialize innovative technology. Formed in 2001 and part of Georgia Tech’s Commercialization Services, VentureLab builds on more than 25 years of experience at the ATDC.

About the ATDC: The Advanced Technology Development Center is a nationally-recognized science and technology incubator that helps Georgia entrepreneurs launch and build successful companies. ATDC provides strategic business advice and connects its member companies to the people and resources they need to succeed.

More than 110 companies have emerged from the ATDC, including publicly-traded firms such as MindSpring Enteprises – now part of EarthLink. Headquartered at Technology Square on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, ATDC has been recognized by both BusinessWeek and Inc. magazines as among the nation’s top nonprofit incubators. Since 1999, ATDC companies have attracted more than a billion dollars in venture capital funding.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright