A healthcare revolution to transform well-being is brewing in Boulder.
And it’s deeply rooted in a driving desire to eliminate the pain and suffering caused by some of the most devastating and deadly diseases of our time.
That is the goal of the 26-year quest of serial biotech entrepreneur, Dr. Larry Gold, founder and chairman of SomaLogic® and past chairman of CU-Boulder’s molecular biology department.
Dr. Gold founded SomaLogic in 2000 to transform how disease is diagnosed and treated. His mission is to alter how – and how early – diseases are detected, improving the well-being and quality of life for every person.
He aims to do this by revolutionizing the field of “proteomics” – the study of the 20,000 proteins that make up the human body. Utilizing its proprietary technology, SomaLogic is making great strides and can measure about 5,000 of those proteins currently, with the rest on the way.
Opening the Door to Early Diagnosis
The idea behind proteomics is to look at a biological sample like blood and compare the protein make-up of healthy people to that of sick people from a similar population. The differences found are then used as “biomarkers” of disease, the basis of new diagnostic tests.
If done over a large population for any one disease, a pattern of protein variation may emerge, opening the door to earlier diagnosis and possible treatments.
“There are 3,500 proteins that are secreted by cells and then, by design, end up in blood. That’s 3,500 out of the 20,000, and then all the rest of them have a shot at getting into blood,” says Gold.
“For example when a cell dies it spills its contents out and that will end up in blood also. And so in principle, when a person has a disease, you don’t know what to expect will be in their blood…so we do a kind of ‘unbiased hunt’ for protein differences.”
“What’s so incredible is that it works so well,” he says, noting that in the last five or six years only a couple of experiments of that kind conducted by SomaLogic did not work, compared to more than 60 that did.
Proteins vs. DNA
Proteins provide a meaningful view of change in the body. While similar to genome or DNA mapping, protein identification is also very different.
“The DNA in virtually every type of tissue in your body is identical. But, the protein concentration in all tissues is variable. The protein levels in every tissue changes over time even though DNA is constant – except for cancer cells,” explains Gold, adding that protein changes can be correlated with disease, including cancer.
And proteins can provide a much earlier indication of change, potentially serving as biomarkers for many different diseases.
SOMAscan™ and SOMAmer®
SomaLogic has two proprietary tools – SOMAmer reagents and the SOMAscan assay. SOMAmer reagents are small molecules that bind specific proteins.
The SOMAscan assay uses those SOMAmers to detect and measure a broad range of proteins. Together, these tools enable the identification of protein biomarkers.
“The SOMAscan assay is a device for measuring a lot of things accurately,” says Gold. The technology measures broadly and deeply, looking at thousands of proteins simultaneously.
In the end, the technology produces a chip “with colored dots,” explains Gold. “The color is the level of that protein in the sample.”
Today, researchers outside of SomaLogic can access the SOMAscan assay or many SOMAmer reagents for their own investigations, either as a service from SomaLogic or by having the SOMAscan assay deployed at their own institution. In addition, SomaLogic makes custom SOMAmers to fit proteins of interest.
The Pace Quickens
After years of development, milestones are now being reached at a much-accelerated pace, with news events coming out of the 150+ person company ever more quickly over the last several years.
At this time, 10,400 papers have been published about the fundamental new approach described by Gold and his graduate student, Craig Tuerk, in 1990.
Recently, the medical community has taken more notice and SomaLogic technology has been deployed to many research hospitals, going from zero to nine deployments since June 2014. The impressive and growing list includes:
- University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine
- Massachusetts General Hospital
- National Institutes of Health
- University of Colorado Denver, Anschutz Medical Campus
- University of Manitoba Centre for Proteomics and Systems Biology
- Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
Read about the dreaded diseases SomaLogic is targeting in PART TWO.