Walking through the Fairview Technology Center, you wouldn’t know you’re approaching a laboratory until you’re standing in it.
The doors to every room in the former elementary school’s hallways look alike. If it weren’t for the sign that reads “490 Biotech” on the entrance to the old school cafeteria, you’d never guess the groundbreaking science happening inside.
Lab equipment lines every wall of the Innov865 startup competition winner’s bespoke research lab. Four scientists mill about. Inside a small office sits Dan Close, who leads research and development for the startup’s bright invention.
And bright is right, because 490 Biotech has developed the technology to make any cell glow.
“Healthy cells glow the brightest, sick cells go a bit dimmer and dead cells go completely dark,” Close explained, adding that the brightness indicates the cells’ health in real time.
490 Biotech is using its light emitting technology to develop tests for a leg of the pharmaceutical industry called in vitro toxicology.
“We work at the very first stage of pharmaceutical development,” Close said.
During this discovery phase, scientists developing drugs begin screening large numbers of compounds to see how they affect the problem they’re meant to address, and whether or not they have a negative effect on healthy cells.
“If you’ve got 100,000 compounds to go through, you want to look at each one 10 times, you’re going to pay for 10 tests, 100,000 times,” Close said.
It’s an expensive process of elimination that turns out only a few effective drugs.
Close said that every year, the pharmaceutical industry wastes over $24 billion developing drugs that are found to be unsafe or ineffective, and the effective ones that hit market are priced to recoup dollars lost in development.
490 Biotech’s glowing technology presents a cost-saving alternative to the process by reducing the number of tests required to determine a potential drug’s safety and effectiveness to one.
Once cells are made to glow, scientists can use video to monitor their real time cell health over any period they’re interested in.
They can watch a healthy, glowing cell start to get sick and recover when it’s given treatment, or they can watch a sick cell start to get healthy and monitor it to ensure it becomes as healthy as a cell that was never sick in the first place and stays healthy.
“Our real goal is to make this research easier to the point where money is not being wasted developing things that don’t work,” Close said. “Our technology can help scientists get significantly more information about potential new drugs and identify safe, effective ones earlier in the development timeline with lower costs.
“Hopefully that will translate to lower drug costs for consumers as well,” he added.
Close said his company intends to use its $7,000 prize from the Innov865 competition for sales and marketing assistance in pitching the product to scientists.
“We’ve always put our focus on development first, spending our money on research instead of appearance and marketing,” Close said.
That focus paid off, as 490 Biotech entered the competition with a product that was ready to go to market.
Getting to this point has been nine years in the making.
490 biotech’s research was funded entirely through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, because Close and his co-founders didn’t want investors’ expectations to dictate the speed of their technology’s progress.
“A lot of people get focused on how quickly the company can grow, but we want to disrupt how the pharmaceutical industry makes new drugs and we want to do that from Knoxville,” Close said. “So we knew we wanted a slower, more thorough approach.”
The slowed-down timeline enabled the company to spend more time testing and optimizing products to meet customers’ needs.
That meant money was tight, so the scientists built their laboratory from secondhand equipment.
“We’ve found that with science, if you have the right people, you don’t need the best equipment to do fantastic science,” Close said, adding that he’d become skilled at fixing broken equipment over the last nine years.
“You don’t have to have the nicest, newest piece of equipment if you’re willing to put in the effort.” As the biotech startup started making sales and pre-market revenue, they gradually upgraded the lab’s equipment, piece by piece.
“We’re really excited we’ve been able to stick to this approach successfully and now we’re at the point where we’re ready to go to market. We’re very confident about putting this technology in users’ hands.”
490 biotech’s bright idea has potential in other areas of the medical industry as well.
Close said his startup decided to introduce the technology to the market by looking at cell toxicity, but they’re exploring areas it can benefit diagnostic and regenerative medicine and genetic research.
It also has the potential to make personalized medicine more accessible.
“Say you go to the doctor and they give you the unfortunate news that you have a tumor and you’re going to have to start chemotherapy,” Close explained.
“With this technology, we can actually take a biopsy of that tumor, make it glow, put it on a plate and treat it with different chemotherapy options to find out which option is best for your particular disease, because no two cancers are the same.”
Doctors can compare the treated tumor cells with samples of healthy patient tissue as well, so they can pick a treatment that will attack the disease without adversely affecting the patient’s overall health.
“Light is such an easy thing to read that there are a plethora of different options to deploy this,” Close said.
And the company continues to work to make the light brighter. Right now, in a dark room, cells treated with 490 Biotech’s technology glow brightly enough to be seen with the naked eye and even captured on a cell phone.
“If all this fails, and we’re not able to change the drug discovery industry, there’s always the possibility that we can shift gears and try to make somebody a glowing pet,” Close joked.
But he’s kind of serious — 490 Biotech is planning to create a glowing aquarium fish that could make it easier for aquarium owners to know if their fish is healthy or not.
“One of the benefits of focusing on drug development first, is we had to build this technology from the ground up to be completely innocuous for the cell that’s hosting it,” Close said. “Because if you’re trying to sell a test to see whether a drug has an effect on a cell, but the test itself affects the cell, you’re not going to be a very effective product.
“It’s very far outside our pharmaceutical focus, but one of the benefits of reaching this point is we’re finally in a position where we can have a little side project that’s not funded off government grants.”