NanoMedica: Accelerating Drug Discovery through Micro-sized Technology
Roger Cubicciotti is often seen mingling in the Wake Forest Biotech Place atrium or grabbing lunch at Café Brioche, sporting a t-shirt and jeans. Conversation with him is easy, and he gives the impression that he would be as comfortable on a surfboard as he is among his team in the lab. Yet, behind this laidback demeanor is a powerhouse of entrepreneurial spirit and scientific discovery. Cubicciotti is the founder of NanoMedica, a nanotechnology startup that aspires to make the drug discovery process faster, less labor-intensive and more affordable.
Cubicciotti, a Ph.D. in pharmacology and cell biophysics, began his career in the late 1970s as many scientists do — putting on a lab coat and securing a post-doc at a prestigious university. In his case it was the University of California, Berkeley. Early on, Cubicciotti was intrigued by the emerging biotech industry. “When I was thinking about a career path, I was much more excited about inventing and commercializing technology than traditional research,” he reflects.
After drafting his first business plan Cubicciotti realized his Ph.D. did not prepare him to run a business. He decided to make the leap from academia to industry to learn the process of product development. For 25 years he worked for companies in areas such as corporate research & development, project management, venture development, biopharmaceutical business development and technology commercialization.
During those 25 years, he also consulted and had a front row seat to businesses of all types and sizes. He explains that the shift from lab coat to suit and tie opened up access to the inner workings of industry. “Since I looked the part of a businessman, the CEOs and presidents of these companies identified with and conversed more openly with me,” he says.
In the mid-1990s, Cubicciotti took what he had learned during his suit-and-tie years, and applied it to entrepreneurial endeavors. The original concept for NanoMedica was a “pie in the sky idea” that he patented in 1998. With the invention of DNA sequencing technology in the 2000s and contributions from Wake Forest University Department of Physics faculty members Martin Guthold, Ph.D., Keith Bonin, Ph.D., and Jed Macosko, Ph.D., as well as biology graduate student, Jason Gagliano, the concept became a viable business idea. These collaborations with faculty at Wake Forest University brought the business to life in 2010, and in 2013, NanoMedica left its borrowed space in Wake Forest University’s Department of Physics and took residence in a corner of Biotech Place’s second floor.
NanoMedica’s facilities consist of two workbenches in a large laboratory predominantly occupied by Wake Forest researchers in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. In their humble space they offer three business lines.
The first is Next Generation DNA Sequencing, not a unique service in itself, but as Cubicciotti explains, “NanoMedica distinguishes itself from competitors by offering customized services with in-depth analytics and educated bioinformatics.”
The second business line, the central innovation of the company, has the potential to revolutionize a key component of drug discovery: target identification and library screening. NanoMedica has created a microchip that holds a library of synthetic DNA molecules, called aptamers, which can fold into various shapes. Using the capabilities produced by the DNA sequencing machine, NanoMedica can take a minute amount of a molecular sample and compare it to millions of potential binding matches.
Traditionally, researchers use a wet lab process to test hundreds to thousands of compounds at a time in the hopes of identifying a molecule that has the binding properties to counteract a particular disease or gene abnormality. Usually only one in 10,000 molecules has the binding potential, so the traditional method tends to be a lengthy process.
In contrast, NanoMedica’s microchip has the ability to evaluate 1 million to 160 million molecular shapes at a time. The diversity of the synthetic DNA molecules not only increases the potential of finding a good match in a timely fashion, but also increases the future drug’s ability to target the disease marker and not destroy healthy cells surrounding it. The difference between NanoMedica’s microchip method and the traditional method is similar to old-world map charting versus today’s GPS.
In cases in which a synthetic DNA molecule cannot replace a traditional organic molecule, NanoMedica has created its third business line – selecting libraries of DNA-encoded small molecules. The libraries are being developed all over the world, but there is no efficient system for selecting a molecule from these libraries in a direct and highly specific manner. Much like the aptamers, the chip would detect binding matches much faster than traditional lab work and in the process significantly decrease the number of false positives that occur in this kind of research.
The microchip technology can potentially shave years and millions of dollars off the drug discovery process. Additionally, when using synthetic molecules the cost of producing the drug is about ten times more affordable, Cubicciotti says. NanoMedica’s technology may also improve treatments by better targeting unhealthy cells, having significant implications for drugs such as chemotherapies. Lastly, the technology may have applications for patient prognosis, creating opportunities for quicker and more accurate diagnostics along with best-fit drug selection.
Cubicciotti pictured with members of his team (l to r: Kara Libby, Roger Cubicciotti, Victor Yu, Keith Bonin)
The Audacious Goal
NanoMedica may be a technology-focused company, but Cubicciotti’s team knows the importance of good customer service. “We are the only company that I know that provides face-to-face communication for these kinds of services,” Cubicciotti says.
This emphasis on customer service reflects the ethos of the team Cubicciotti has built from experts in physics, chemistry, molecular biology, engineering and the biotech industry. Cubicciotti believes robust communication is a unique and vital part of their organization and is quick to turn the credit for any successes to his team.
“You have to have a strong team to reach our goals,” he says. “We want nothing less than to revolutionize the entire drug discovery process.” As they strive to reach this goal, the team has expanded to researchers in the Departments of Cancer Biology, Chemistry and Biology, among others.
While Cubicciotti’s dress and demeanor may be modest, his audacious goal is anything but that. Stop by Café Brioche in the Innovation Quarter to meet him in person, share a cup of coffee and learn more about his plans to transform the drug discovery process.