Ion Channel Screening with High Throughput – from University Bench to Global Player
Dr. rer. nat. Niels Fertig (Spokesperson)
Dr. rer. nat. Andrea Brüggemann
Dipl. Phys. Michael George Nanion Technologies GmbH, Munich
The development of new drugs is a long and costly process. How can it be stepped up and made more cost-effective?
Dr. Niels Fertig, Dr. Andrea Brüggemann, physicist Michael George, and their team developed an innovative system that automates and considerably simplifies the detection of medical active ingredients: the "SyncroPatch 384/768PE" robotic platform. The system is used to test numerous ingredient candidates at the same time and simultaneously on hundreds of cells. This is a major breakthrough in the industrial search for new drugs. Niels Fertig founded Nanion Technologies GmbH in 2002 as a spin-off of the Center for NanoScience at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich and is the company's Chief Executive Officer. Andrea Brüggemann is Chief Scientific Officer and Michael George is Chief Technology Officer at Nanion.
In the past, the development of a new drug from basic research to market readiness took up to twelve years and cost on average around € 800m. One of the reasons was the expensive and time-consuming analysis of millions of substances considered as potential active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Every active ingredient is aimed at a specific point of the body, its target, where it settles and has its therapeutic effect. Especially important targets are ion channels. Ion channels are special proteins in cell membranes that act as minute "gates" and direct the flow of charged ions through the membrane. In the case of certain diseases, such as diabetes, pain, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, and cardiac arrhythmias, ion channel function is disturbed. Certain active ingredients, however, can correct this defect. In order to find suitable substances capable of doing so, pharmaceutical research scientists need to test countless substances on different cells. This is generally done using a patch-clamp technology that measures the flow of electrical current through the cell membrane. Researchers at the University of Munich and at Nanion specifically modified the conventional patch-clamp method in the late 1990's. They used biochips with integrated sensors no larger than a micrometer that were capable of performing rapid and automatic analyses. Niels Fertig and Andrea Brüggemann together with physiologist Prof. Dr. Jan C. Behrends were already nominated for the Deutscher Zukunftspreis in 2007 for this first stage of development.
Patch-clamping with microchips has long since established itself as the standard procedure used in the search for active ingredients in a laboratory environment. In an effort to render the system suitable for industrial applications, the three nominated researchers refined the development, creating a general and versatile robotic platform system. They combined hundreds of microreaction chambers with an efficient amplifier system and specially engineered recording and analysis software. It effectively and virtually instantaneously filters the effectiveness of the drugs out of the sophisticated measuring signals. The researchers also designed the system as a modular system. In this way, individual modules each with 384 channels can be combined in larger units - for example, to create a double platform capable of automatic and parallel analyses of active ingredients on 768 cells.
One particular advantage of the SynchroPatch system is that it can easily be adapted to existing laboratory facilities. There is no need to install a new infrastructure it uses industry standards. The platform is capable of analyzing potential candidates at a throughput rate of over 20,000 substances per day. Promising substances are thus detected at an early stage, and it is easier to eliminate useless and ineffective candidates. This gives a boost to the search for active ingredients and lowers costs.
Nanion Technologies GmbH holds several patents to the platform technology. The system was introduced to the market in 2013 and is already in use in companies and at university facilities around the world. In its first year alone, total turnover of the highly profitable company increased by € 1.5m. The young company currently has over 50 employees with branches in the USA and China.
Start of the Diploma Thesis at the Center for Molecular Neurobiology in Hamburg (ZMNH)
Continuation of the Diploma Thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, Göttingen: "Isolation and electrophysiological characterization of the putative potassium channel ether-à-go-go from Drosophila Melanogaster”
Diplom, Ruhr-University Bochum
1994 – 1997
Dissertation at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, Göttingen: "Investigation of the voltage-dependent potassium channel rEAG under the influence of the Cell Cycle"
Research stays of several months in Spain
Disputation in physics at the Ruhr-University Bochum
Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, Department of Molecular Biology of Neuronal Signals, Göttingen
1993 - 1997
Scholarship of the Max-Planck-Society
Post-doc in the Cardio-Vascular Research Department at Sanofi-Aventis (Hoechst Marion Roussel), Frankfurt
Laboratory head in the Cardio-Vascular Research Department at Sanofi-Aventis Germany, Frankfurt
Head of the Ion Channel Platform at Sanofi-Aventis Germany, Frankfurt
Head of the Biological Department at Cytion SA, Epalinges, Switzerland
Managing Director and CSO Nanion Technologies GmbH, Munich