Alumnus Alex Freeman is leading efforts
to revolutionize drug development
Larry Ellison, founder and chairman of software
giant Oracle, says that if he were starting out in business
today, hed go into genetic engineering. Silicon Valley
entrepreneur John Doerr made a fortune investing in computer
and Internet companies, but today he advises his daughter
to study medicine. Former Wall Street wizard Michael
Milken says that just as the 20th century was the age of physics,
the 21st will be the century of biology. These and other knowledgeable
investors believe the most exciting technical advances in
coming years will be in biotechnology.
UTA alumnus and research faculty member Alex Freeman plans
to play a big part in those advances.
He knows that pharmaceutical researchers are constantly searching
for better, more effective drugs to cure or at least ameliorate
the effects of disease. But until now, the process of developing
and testing new drugs has been painstaking, sometimes taking
up to 10 years for final approval.
Researchers at Cytoplex Biosciences in Plano
are developing specially designed computer chips that experts predict
will cut by at least one-third the time and expense involved in
developing new drugs.
Dr. Freeman, who graduated in 1997, is president
of Plano-based Cytoplex Biosciences, Inc. His research team is made
up of microsystems engineers, drug developers and cell biologists
who are developing specially designed computer chips that experts
predict will cut by at least one-third the time and expense involved
in developing new drugs.
Since the market potential for genomicsthe
branch of genetics that studies organisms in terms of their full
DNA sequencesexceeds $30 billion in the United States alone,
any change in the technology that affects the market is considered
revolutionary. And the Cytoplex technology is a big change.
With the Cytoplex system, biological host materials
are carefully layered onto silicon chips, providing a good environment
for cell growth. Then cells are induced to grow on the chips. The
drugs under development are applied to the growing cells, and the
chips monitor how the drugs interact with them, revealing whether
or not the drugs work effectively.
In essence a lab on a chip, the new
monitoring system allows researchers to see, in real time, the effects
of various drugs on different types of cells. It also provides a
steady flow of information on the drug-cell interaction.
Such information is invaluable to pharmaceutical
companies, telling them early onbefore testing on humans ever
beginsif a particular drug is working.Perhaps most importantly,
the technology keeps drug manufacturers from having to kill drugs
after they reach the human-testing phase, when most of the money
and time have already been invested. And it cuts development costs
by having relatively cheap machines do much of the day-to-day testing
currently performed by more expensive, highly trained researchers.
Cytoplex chips range in size from a postage stamp
to a credit card and are programmed to host very specific kinds
of cells for testing purposes, such as heart, kidney or liver cells.
The minute-by-minute monitoring made possible by the chips and the
resulting vast storehouse of information may eventually be made
available to pharmaceutical companies and government agencies via
We believe this will lead to a much faster
discovery of new drugs for diseases such as arthritis and various
neurological disorders, Dr. Freeman said.
When he looks farther into the future, he sees
using the Cytoplex chips not only to find cures for disease, but
also to detect diseases such as cancer or HIV. Far in the distance
lies the possibility of creating temporary organs for use until
suitable transplants become available.
That technology is a bit difficult, very
futuristic, he said. Other future applications include a breathalyzer
chip installed in cars to disclose a drivers blood-alcohol
level and a stomach on a chip to test how well oral
medications are absorbed in the digestive system.
People have recognized the importance of this technology,
Dr. Freeman said.
Very influential people.