Eugene firm employs worms to transform drug research

Elizabeth Hayes, Portland Business Journal

The following story is part of this week’s package on the winners of the Portland Business Journal’s Small Business Innovation Awards.

Eugene-based NemaMetrix uses nematode worms to help scientists save money and time as they determine if a drug has therapeutic value or potentially dangerous side effects.

The startup’s ScreenChip System collects data after DNA from a human patient is injected into the worm, an excellent living proxy for a human.

“Honestly, I believe we’re building a platform that will transform access to living animals for basic research and applied research, figuring out what it means for humans,” NemaMetrix CEO Matt Beaudet said in January. “I don’t think there’s a limit to the number of labs we can get in.”

NemaMetrix’s system is currently used in 100 labs around the world, including Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, the University of Washington, Stanford University and Bayer. Beaudet hopes to get into 200 more in short order.

So far, NemaMetrix has garnered $4.5 million in grant funding from NIH, Oregon Best and other entities and $3.5 million in three funding rounds, led by Cascade Angels Fund and Oregon State Venture Fund and Rogue Partners.

The Obama administration recognized NemaMetrix in 2014 for developing “revolutionary life science platform technologies.” Most recently, it won the grand prize at the Cascadia Venture Forum and was named most innovative med-tech company in the Northwest by CBInsights.

Sales are expected to triple to $3 million this year.

The company, which now employs 27 people, originated as a research project of University of Oregon professor Shawn Lockery. He invented a technique for studying the C. elegans nematode worm that used fluids, instead of tweezers and electrodes, making it potentially more precise and cost-effective for drug screening. Lockery and another professor spun off NemaMetrix in 2012. The university still owns the technology and licenses it to the company on an exclusive basis.

Nematode worms are capable of modeling up to 80 percent of human disease genes. They’re also an ideal model organism for humans because they cost less and produce results much faster. NemaMetrix can get results from the worms in about four weeks at a cost of $5,000 vs. 18 to 24 months and a cost of up to $1 million for mouse models.

Using C. elegans worms in drug discovery is a three-part process. First, researchers create a “transgenic” animal, changing the genetic makeup of the worm by adding human DNA from breast cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or another disease — or perhaps multiple conditions together.

Then the animal’s vital signs are measured, for example, to gauge how the treatment for one disease might affect their other conditions. Then the data is used for predictive or targeted drug discovery. It’s the middle step — measurement — that NemaMetrix’s system addresses.

While at first NemaMetrix just produced raw data for customers, it now offers an advanced software package.

“The main thing we’re bringing to the table is how to take it from being a ‘build your own rocket engine’ to something you can walk up to and order what you want and it be ready to use it in a couple of days,” Beaudet said.

Read the rest of the story at Portland Business Journal (subscription required).

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