A Silver Spring laboratory is producing antibodies for a new herpes test that will be available in hospitals, clinical chemistry laboratories and physicians' offices by the end of the year.
Results of the new test will be available faster and at a significantly lower price than previous procedures, according to officials of the parent company, Electro-Nucleonics Inc. of Fairfield, N.J. ENI's cell science laboratory is on Tech Road in Silver Spring, and its warehouse and distribution center is in Columbia.
Current herpes tests require live virus from an existing infection to be grown in tissue culture for several days. But ENI's direct-smear test can use samples taken directly from the patient, can detect dead as well as living virus, and can produce results in less than an hour. It is the first direct-smear herpes test with monoclonal antibodies, according to Dr. Sean O'Neill, director of ENI's life science technology operations in Maryland. Monoclonal antibodies are produced from a single cell source rather than from a population of cells, as are other antibodies. This yields an infinite number of identical antibody-producing cells.
The technical director of the lab, Dr. Dan Zimmerman, described how ENI produces monoclonal antibodies:
A mouse is inoculated with herpes virus. The cells producing the antibodies--large proteins that fight the virus--are separated under a microscope.
Each antibody cell is fused with another cell to assure that it will continue reproducing indefinitely, and nutrients are added.
Antibodies created by the cells are separated in centrifuges, stabilized and then freeze-dried.
A proprietary process for which ENI has filed a patent application gives the monoclonal antibodies unique properties that make their use in a direct-smear test possible, ENI officials said.
ENI, which was founded in 1960, has a subsidiary, Princeton Biomedics, in Princeton, N.J., and facilities in Germany and The Netherlands for sales, service, distribution and trading. Its stock is traded over the counter.
ENI opened facilities in Bethesda in 1969, but moved some of them to Silver Spring in 1972 and the remainder to Columbia last year.
It had $43 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended June 30, compared with $37 million for the previous fiscal year. Net income rose from $1.6 million (51 cents a share) a year ago to $2.5 million (67 cents).
Clinical blood chemistry analyzers and the reagents used in them are ENI's main business. Just as Eastman Kodak Co. is interested more in selling film than cameras, or Gillette more in selling blades than razors, ENI is interested more in selling reagents and other consummables than the hardware that uses them.
But it does sell hardware, including ultra-high-speed laboratory centrifuges and clinical chemistry blood analyzers, its main line of business. The smallest blood analyzer, the GEMSTAR, is for a physician's office, while larger models are for private labs or hospitals. The GEMSTAR is the only analyzer for a physician's office that performs 12 common blood tests, according to Richard Abajian, secretary-treasurer and the brother of ENI's chairman, chief executive officer and founder, Vincent Abajian.
"We found that a physician doing as little as two or three test profiles a day can justify" buying a GEMSTAR, said Kevin Crowley, who directs ENI's Maryland sales of diagnostic products. He said more than 50,000 physicians do their own testing, but 35 percent of GEMSTAR sales have been to those physicians who hadn't done their own tests before.
"We see medicine in the future expanding from the hospital and lab into physicians' offices," Crowley said. The company tells doctors that, by doing their own blood analyses, they can cut the wait for the results of standard tests from one or two days to a matter of minutes.
"We envision ENI achieving $100 million in sales within five years," Abajian said, adding that the company foresees a large expansion in the field of biotechnology. He said that ENI and pharmaceutical houses are discussing joint production of home tests for infectious diseases.
The Silver Spring lab is a maze of carefully sealed rooms filled with researchers and technicians doing careful, exacting work. But Sue Croson of Gaithersburg, an ENI research assistant, has injected a touch of humor by displaying a poster from Research Organics, a pharmaceutical house.
It features drawings of friendly, blobby creatures and a slogan that is a pun on the title of a Stephen Sondheim song: Send in the Clones.
Don't bother, here.