Nanotechnology has generated a great deal of interest around the world as it has impacted the way scientists think and come up with solutions. It has also influenced industrial areas and basic science research to the extent that numerous studies are being carried out across the globe in different disciplines associated with nanotechnology.
Since nanotechnology deals with matter at the scale of one billionth of a meter (10-9m), where materials possess unique properties compared to their macroscopic counterparts, finding unique solutions to various scientific problems has become an achievable goal. Bio-medical science and engineering are two major fields that use nanomaterials as powerful tools in making revolutionary inventions. Nanomaterials have been designed for a variety of biomedical and biotechnological applications that range from drug delivery to magnetic hyperthermia, biosensors, enzyme immobilization and isolation of biomolecules. Nanobiotechnology also offers solutions in the detection of pathogens, tissue engineering and imaging for MRI contrast enhancement, among others.
Futuristic no more
Scientists from the academic and industrial backgrounds are investing their efforts in nanotechnology in several countries including India. Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) established Nanoscience and Technology Mission (NSTM) during the 10th plan period (2002- 2007). As a result of the efforts led by the mission, India is today among the top five nations in the world in terms of scientific publications in nano science and technology. In the industrial sector in India, there are companies that have ventured into activities such as the synthesis of nano-materials and coating products.
But it is not easy to find companies which are singularly focused on developing technology and products in the area of nano-biotechnology. This is what makes Chennai-based start-up MagGenome Technologies unique. Its story is inspiring and a perfect example of the transformation of application-oriented academic research into successful commercial endeavours.
MagGenome’s journey starts with founder and CEO Dr CN Ramchand. Though primarily a researcher in drug discovery and development who has headed research teams in several pharma companies, he was passionate about nanotechnology, especially magnetic nanoparticles.
While working at the University of Sheffield, he published two highly cited articles in collaboration with the Institute of Experimental Physics at Slovak Academy of Sciences. They describe novel methods for immobilization of functional proteins on magnetic nanoparticles. It was a time when magnetic nanoparticles had caught the attention and interest of scientists around the world. The major reason for the interest was the wide applicability of magnetic nanoparticles compared to other nano-materials due to their responsiveness to an external magnetic field, biocompatibility, low toxicity, cost-effective methods of synthesis etc. Because of their magnetic responsiveness, these particles are easily controllable in both in vivo and in vitro applications. Additionally, the size of the magnetic nanoparticle is smaller than, or comparable to, that of a cell (10–100 μm), a virus (20–450 nm) or a protein (5–50 nm). This makes magnetic nanoparticles ideal for futuristic applications in various fields related to engineering, environment and medical research.
Academia to industry
Graduate students of Dr Ramchand continued working on various biological applications of magnetic nanoparticles. They developed novel techniques and generated patents and publications, which later paved the way to the formation of MagGenome Technologies. These studies were conducted at major research institutions like M.S. University, Baroda, P.D. Patel Institute of Applied Sciences, Charotar University of Science and Technology, Changa, Slovak academy of science etc., and prominent scientists from these universities served as advisors.
One of the major highlights of these technologies was the extraction of nucleic acids using bare (uncoated) iron oxide (Fe3O4) magnetic nano-particles. Traditionally, DNA extraction from biological sources had been a tedious and time-consuming process, since these procedures included extraction using harmful organic solvents like phenol and chloroform. Later on, more expensive but quite efficient method of binding of nucleic acids to solid supports, such as silica-based spin columns, glass fibres, anion exchange carriers and modified magnetic beads, were developed and commercialised. But all these aforementioned technologies come with their own drawbacks and concerns. It is in this context that MagGenome Technologies took up the challenge of developing a cost-effective, environment-friendly and more robust nucleic acid extraction system by taking leads from doctoral work at Dr Ramchand’s laboratory. As a result of further optimization and fine tuning, MagGenome was able to successfully launch its nucleic acid extraction kit in the market under the brand name XpressDNA kits.
Another technology of great potential that MagGenome developed was immobilization of functional proteins on bare nanoparticles using an epoxy cross-linking method for which the company owns a patent. This type of cross-linking facilitates the entrapment of nanoparticles in the cross-linked protein matrix and in turn, accomplishes the immobilization of the protein. The immobilized protein and nanoparticles remain in direct association due to lack of polymeric coating.
The technology remained unique and the products developed using this technology, such as immobilized affinity ligands and immobilized enzymes, are more advantageous than commercially available magnetic bead-based products. For example, affinity ligands XpressAffinity Protein A/G, which are used for purification of antibodies, offer more binding capacity and reusability than other commercial magnetic bead-based products, mainly because of the use of nanoparticles that offer a high surface area-to-volume ratio. Antibodies immobilized by this method are currently being used in multiple research level applications and further research is underway in developing more clinically relevant methodologies such as isolation of circulating tumour cells and early cancer diagnosis.
The start-up, promoted by US based science entrepreneur Sam Santhosh, Emerge Ventures head Mahesh Pratapneni and eminent clinician Prof S Arumugam, got incubated at SciGenom Lab in Kochi in 2014. Exactly after four years, it started operation from a new facility at Perungudi in Chennai. It didn’t take much time for the start-up to achieve much-needed recognition not only at the national level, but also internationally. MagGenome was selected as one of the emerging start-ups from India in the nano-biotechnology area to showcase its products at the India Pavilion at BIO 2017 International Convention at San Diego. Next year, it was again selected to present at the Startup Stadium at BIO 2018 International at Boston, an opportunity only a handful of start-ups from across the globe get every year. MagGenome is completely focussed on providing alternative, environment friendly and robust solutions to the challenges faced by life sciences researchers in India and abroad.
Dr Ramchand, an academic enthusiast in most of his career life, spoke about what inspired him to enter a commercial venture.
“I always had a keen interest in applied research even when I was in the academic setup. My initial research work was mainly focused on mental disorders like schizophrenia and also on the basics of novel drug discovery. However, I had many research collaborations in the field of nanotechnology, including the one with Slovak Academy of Sciences and others with MS University of Baroda and Bhavnagar University respectively,” he said. I was developing commercially viable techniques that have major applications in biotechnology through these collaborations. These projects led to several good patents, publications and some of my students were also able to finish their PhDs on these lines,” says Ramchand.
“Later, I realised that the global market for the products that I developed over the years in nanotechnology is very big and there are only big multinational companies working in this field with nil or very little presence in India. Keeping these things in mind, I ventured into MagGenome, which is now the only company in India developing all these technologies locally and sells both domestically and overseas,” he added.
“Finally, I would say that it was my passion to develop superior technologies with high commercial value and that has actually led me to think of such a high-end technology start-up,” quipped Ramchand.
A major breakthrough the company envisages in the very near future is the development of an automated system for purification of monoclonal antibodies. The current market leader in this area is the AKTA protein purification system from the global technology giant, GE Healthcare. This instrument is used for fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC), wherein proteins of various sizes can be readily purified using different types of columns. MagGenome is focused on developing an alternative to the AKTA system, in which the advantages of the magnetic nanoparticle technology can be utilised to develop a low cost, but robust and quick system for monoclonal antibody purification, mainly using affinity and hydrophobic interaction chromatography resins.
There are also other multiple techniques being developed in MagGenome which will offer solutions to researchers in life sciences at various stages of biomolecule isolation, characterisation and downstream processing.
According to Ramchand, these technologies that have been developed by him and his team at MagGenome will greatly benefit future research in this area and will have a greater impact in healthcare and several other industries.
“The technologies that we have commercialized, and some other exciting technologies that are currently in the pipeline, have the potential to immensly benefit research, healthcare and industrial domains alike,” says Ramchand
“We are already covering several hospitals in India, helping them to extract nucleic acid for rapid DNA based diagnostics. Similarly, our protein purification technology is outperforming most of the well-known products currently in the market. We are keen on extending this protein purification protocol in the therapeutic domain, which can be a game changer in times to come,” he added.
With a growing bio-pharmaceutical market, magnetic nanoparticle-based automated protein purification will be one of the flagship technologies under the MagGenome umbrella.
Other technologies which are currently in various phases of development include enzyme immobilization, protein extraction, waste-water treatment and nanoparticles as adjuvant vaccines.