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Prince William Hopes Life Sciences Start-Up Will Take Root

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

For the second time a team of scientists in Prince William County has delivered a promising life sciences company. This time the county hopes to keep it.

The county recently agreed to spend $100,000 to develop space for the new company, Ceres Nanosciences, so it can test its drug for detecting human growth hormone. The start-up took form in the county's Innovation at Prince William business park, as a spinoff from work on George Mason University's campus there.

If the tests are successful, the company would have to decide whether it can afford to stay put as it expands. The Innovation business park was created a decade ago to help nurture new companies and help them prosper, to transform the county into a hub for the life sciences.

"It is one thing to attract the blue-chip companies such as Covance," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, referring to the drug manufacturing services firm that has announced its intentions to move to the park. "But it is equally important that we have a thriving atmosphere that is conducive to small start-ups."

The George Mason scientists say their new company could produce the first reliable method of detecting human growth hormone in urine -- a possible breakthrough for anti-doping efforts in sports. But the company still needs to prove its method through key trials and needs adequate lab space to do so.

The county lacks much of this space, an issue that has complicated its efforts to retain such start-ups in the past. Last year another firm founded on the research of the same scientists decided to locate in Montgomery County because of the availability of space there.

"Lab users like to cluster more than any other industry," said Mike Norris, an asset manager for Scheer Partners, a commercial real estate firm that specializes in building and leasing space for biotechnology companies. But, "the cost to build the space is about three times the cost of general office space, so it is very expensive up front for a developer."

There are few reliable methods for testing for HGH, a complex peptide occurring naturally in the body that can be produced synthetically. The drug is used by patients with growth problems but can also by used by athletes to artificially boost performance. Using HGH in sports is prohibited by most professional leagues, but many athletes object to blood tests as inaccurate and invasive.

The urine test that Ceres developed would use specially engineered particles as bait to attract HGH molecules. Once attracted, the particles can close around them, much like a crab trap would, preserving the HGH intact to be tested later.

The test was created at the university as part of its research in detecting cancers. Emanuel Petricoin III, one of the George Mason scientists who helped to develop the particle, said he envisions the technique as a way to detect cancer and other serious ailments in the future. He said the team chose HGH as a particle to target because it was such a difficult and public challenge.

"We wanted to demonstrate the actual utility of these particles," he said. "We wanted to find the hardest challenge we could."

The biggest hurdle facing the company now is doing enough tests to provide validation to satisfy the World Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and professional sports leagues, said Thomas M. Dunlap, the firm's interim chief executive.

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