Industry Handoff Furthers Discovery

May 22, 2003

Tags: Sabatini Lab

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Scientist David Sabatini was studying a group of proteins that control cell growth, when he hit a roadblock. He needed to examine gene and protein function in thousands of living cells all at once, in real time—something not possible with conventional technology.

So, Sabatini did what many creative scientists do when faced with such a dilemma: He invented a new technique to solve his problem—and those of other scientists interested in figuring out the relationship between genes, proteins and human diseases.

That was two years ago. Last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded a patent to Sabatini and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where Sabatini is a researcher, for the technology. Cell microarrays, as they’re called, have allowed Sabatini and other scientists to study thousands of proteins simultaneously in their natural habitat—a living cell. The invention also gave Sabatini an opportunity to merge intellectual curiosity with a process that has aided many scientists with unlimited ideas, but limited resources. That process is commercialization.

Business lessons in the lab

As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Sabatini entered the lab knowing that commercialization was not only possible, but also an important part of scientific discovery. His first steps into that field weren’t as tentative as they may have been for researchers prior to 1980. That year, Congress passed the Bayh-Doyle Act, which removed the barriers that had kept institutions that receive federal funds from jumping into the world of technology transfer—a process by which universities and research institutes transfer their faculty’s inventions and discoveries to businesses for commercial development. A 2000 report from the Association of University Technology Managers found that more than 300 new products—drugs, materials, diagnostics, etc.—were made available to consumers in that year alone, all grown out of academic discoveries.

“I came in knowing that commercialization could be useful, and in fact, interesting,” Sabatini said. When a group of investors approached him and the Institute about licensing his cell microarray technology, he knew what to expect. His discovery launched Akceli, a Cambridge-based company that Sabatini helped create.

“This is all an extension of the intellectual domain of the lab,” Sabatini said. “They’re doing things at Akceli that I don’t have the resources or time to do in my lab here.”

Indeed, were it not for Akceli, the full potential of the cell microarray may not have been explored. Many biologists like Sabatini have created tools to carry their research to the next level. But they must direct their time and resources to their science, not product development. By licensing the cell microarray to Akceli, Sabatini was able to focus on his research without worrying that his technology would languish. Akceli will make the microarrays ready for distribution, and, in the future, researchers around the world will be able to use them to advance all manner of genetic studies.

The path to discovery

When Sabatini joined Whitehead in 1997 as a Fellow, available arrays allowed him to study only a fraction of what high-throughput technology makes possible today. When the first high-throughput arrays were put into use, scientists finally were able to run assays on thousands of cells and genes all at once, an advance that led to a better understanding of life at the molecular level.

Sabatini took things a step further with his cell microarray, which uses small glass slides printed with as many as 10,000 pieces of DNA that encode individual proteins or RNA molecules that inhibit the expression of specific proteins. Clusters of live cells are grown on the surface of the slide in defined areas called “features,” where the DNA is imprinted. The cells absorb the DNA, and begin expressing whatever protein for which the DNA in that feature codes. Sabatini’s technique can be used to assay the location of proteins, study their function and predict their reaction to pathogens and drugs designed to attack those pathogens.

“It’s a system to look at the physiology of cells in an extremely high-throughput way that asks about the genes that underlie that physiology,” Sabatini said.

Adding “inventor” to his list of accomplishments gives the 33-year-old biologist pause. To him, creating the cell microarray technology was a necessary step along the path of scientific discovery. “It was just something we developed along the way,” he said.

Written by Kelli Whitlock.

The research was funded in part by the Mathers Foundation.


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