Medicine man
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, he’d 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 genomics—the branch of genetics that studies organisms in terms of their full DNA sequences—exceeds $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 on—before testing on humans ever begins—if 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 online databases.

“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 driver’s 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.

 


Multimedia

Portrait of a UTA Family
The Taylor family's association with UTA and its preceding institutions began in 1911. It continues today through Lloyd Clark and his granddaughter, sophomore Alida Eggen.

Birth of Nations spawned UTA family affair
With the family home on land now occupied by UTA's South 40 parking lot, it's not surprising that seven Nation siblings attended neighboring North Texas Agricultural College in the 1930s and 1940s.



 
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