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Sander Olson Interviews

Eric Henderson

CONDUCTED JULY 2002


Dr. Eric Henderson, PhD, received both his BA in biology and his PhD in molecular biology from UCLA. In 1994, he founded BioForce in order to develop NanoArray™ technologies for biomolecular analysis. His goal is to be the first bionanotechnology business having commercial products with significant revenues.
 

Question 1: Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what projects are you currently working on?

I have been involved with the field of Atomic Force Microscopy since the first commercial instruments became available in 1989 and have had the good fortune to be involved in some of the pioneering research in the area of biological applications. I have published over 70 peer-reviewed manuscripts and other technical articles in areas of atomic force microscopy, telomere molecular biology, and structural biology. I earned my B.A. in Biology in 1979 and Ph.D. in Molecular Biology in 1984, both from the University of California at Los Angeles. The company was founded in 1994 while I was serving as a Professor of Zoology and Genetics at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The work I was doing at ISU had, in my view, substantial commercial value and I started BioForce in 1994 in an effort to develop the technology and commercialize it as efficiently as possible.

Question 2: Tell us about BioForce Nanosciences, Inc.

BioForce Nanosciences, Inc., is the leading developer of nanoarray technology for biomolecular analysis. We have created innovative, proprietary methods and instrumentation for ultra-sensitive, ultra-miniaturized analysis of proteins, nucleic acids, and other biological material. Over $5MM in grant and investor funding has been raised to date and we have developed well-respected relationships with key organizations in the scientific community. The company goal is to be the first bionanotechnology business having commercial products with significant revenues.

Question 3: How does the NanoArray™ technology work?

Our technology is embodied in the NanoPro™ system. The NanoPro™ System for molecular analysis includes the NanoArrayer™, NanoArrays™, and NanoReader™. The NanoArrayer™ embodies proprietary instrumentation and methodology for creating a broad spectrum of NanoArray™-based biological tests. This device places molecules at defined locations on a surface with nanometer spatial resolution. The arrays of molecules, which form the NanoArray™, are unique to BioForce. NanoArrays™ are ultra-miniaturized biological tests with applications in many areas. The Company's first NanoArray™ products are presently being evaluated for commercial utilization by potential users and are targeted toward the proteomics/genomics and diagnostics markets. These products include protein-profiling arrays for diagnosing the presence and extent of disease such as cancer, and a pathogen screening NanoArray™. NanoArray™ chips for other types of protein expression profiling and immunodiagnostics are in the pipeline for near term release. All NanoArray™ tests can be read in a single image by standard optical fluorescence microscopy. However, when desired, alternative read out methods can be employed. One of these is the NanoReader™, an atomic force microscope optimized for NanoArray™ analysis. Benefits of the NanoReader™ include no requirement for secondary reporter systems (i.e., no fluorescence, radioactivity or enzyme conjugates), real-time readout in physiological solution, vast reductions in materials used, and ultra-high sensitivity. Moreover, the NanoReader™ can be further used for obtaining for direct inter- or intra-molecular force measurements.

Question 4: Does your NanoArray™ technology have the capacity to discover illnesses (such as cancer) earlier than is currently possible? Can this technology be used to reliably and inexpensively diagnose diseases when they are in their earliest stages?

Yes, and yes. We have a collaboration with the National Cancer Institute/FDA for ultraminiaturized diagnosis of cancer and pre-cancerous conditions. The spatial scale of NanoArrays™ allows novel application in this area. For example, we can carry out multiplexed testing on NanoArrays with extremely small sample quantities, possibly even single cells.
Reliability and cost variables are still under investigation. NanoArrays™ can be analyzed by conventional microarray software packages and the variance we see from spot to spot is comparable to numbers obtained with microarrays. However, further field testing is necessary before we have a robust handle on the reliability of NanoArrays in a variety of contexts. Due to vast reductions in cost and instrumentation complexity, we anticipate that NanoArray™ products will be extremely cost competitive.

Question 5: What is the potential for NanoArrays™ in proteomics?

Protein-Protein Interaction Screening: Using NanoArrays™, the interactions between proteins can be directly measured and, at the same time, the effects of third party molecules on a specific protein-protein interaction can be evaluated. The interaction between proteins is key to the signaling of relevant events in living cells. These interactions relate directly to disease states such as cancer and autoimmune dysfunction. NanoArrays™ can also be measured with an AFM for force within a single molecule. This novel ability allows for rapid analysis of differences in protein stability.

Affinity-based Biomarker Profiling: The use of antibodies or other affinity tags to "profile" specific cellular or organismal states is the first practical application from the emerging field of proteomics, and is directly applicable to the NanoArray™ format. Using NanoArray™ antibody ensembles, it is possible to establish protein or "biomarker" profiles for cytokines, antigens, and many other molecular species of interest. These profiles can then be used for both predictive and diagnostic purposes in developing drug treatments and other medical strategies.

Question 6: What about drug and gene therapy development? Could NanoArrays™ be used to manipulate individual genes?

That is a little more future looking. We have shown that we can use the tools embodied in the NanoPro™ system to manipulate chromosomes with high accuracy and even to manipulate single DNA molecules. It is premature to discuss exactly how these capabilities will be implemented, but my intuition is that we are at the tip of a very hefty iceberg.

Question 7: One aspect of medical technology that appears to hold promise is computational chemistry - using computers to simulate chemical and molecular interactions. Has BioForce Nanosciences done any work in this area? Does this area complement or compete with NanoArray™ technologies?

We have not been involved in computational chemistry although we watch that technology closely. My view is that computational chemistry will compliment our activities and may become intimately associated with what we are doing at some point in the future. BioForce will be ready if that point comes.

Question 8: How widely could NanoArrays™ be used? Do you think that eventually most hospitals and clinics will use one?

NanoArrays™ will revolutionize the biomolecular screening markets just as microarrays did several years ago. NanoArrays™ have similar applications as microarrays do, yet create novel opportunities as well. NanoArray™ technology has a broad range of molecular analysis applications including: protein-protein interaction, immunodiagnostics, nucleic acid analysis, affinity-based biomarker profiling, genome mapping, and pathogen detection. In addition, NanoArrays™ create the opportunity to address important areas for which adequate multiplexed assays do not exist. One such area is single cell analysis. Utilizing this technology, we will be able to derive answers to questions from single cells that, even if possible by current methods, would have required thousands of cells and population averaging. Imagine the benefit to a patient who need be subjected only to a throat swab rather than a surgical biopsy for cancer diagnosis! This is just one of the goals that NanoArrays™ will be able to achieve. In the next few years, the novel attributes of NanoArrays™ will create unprecedented opportunities and applications for a variety of market segments in both the life sciences and non-life sciences arenas.

Question 9: Some writers talk about nanobots floating in our bloodstream, performing a variety of functions, such as fighting disease. Do you believe that this scenario will ever come to pass?

It will probably come to pass, but probably not as portrayed in the current popular view. I am a molecular biologist and, in my view, we already have a bloodstream full of "nanobots" in the form of molecules and molecular ensembles. At this point, we seem to be, in some camps at least, trying to second-guess evolution rather than learning from it. I do not believe this is the most productive path to success in bionanotechnology. But once we have been sufficiently humbled and there is a general recognition that biomolecules and nanotechnology are two faces of the same thing, there will be some amazing outcomes.

Question 10: How would you describe the investment climate for nanotechnology? Has Bioforce Nanosciences had any difficulty attracting venture capital?

I would describe it as a lot of people standing on the edge of a very inviting Jacuzzi — all waiting for someone to jump in. My impression is that the bear market and the collapse of the high flying dot coms has made a lot of potential investors nervous, yet everyone wants to be in on the "next big thing" which could well be nanotechnology. As you know, the term nanotechnology is in vogue and is applied to a lot of different enterprises, so investors have to be careful to find companies with substantive goals, workable business plans, and a clear and well thought out path to near term revenues. Our strategy has been to develop a multi-tiered plan to implement nanotechnological principles and tools as they make the transition from interesting science to commercially viable products. Hence, we have both near, mid, and long term projects and plans with coincident near, mid and long-term revenue goals. I believe we are somewhat unique in that we are taking a very practical approach to creating value in the emerging bionanotechnology industry.

Question 11: The recent growth in the fields of genetic engineering, biochemistry, and molecular nanotechnology appears to be almost exponential. How long do you see these growth rates continuing?

I think nanotechnology will mature over the next 50-100 years. I do not know what the growth rate will be, but nanotechnology represents an opportunity with unprecedented potential. It is interfacial, lying between physics, engineering, biology, materials science and chemistry, and probably other areas. Unlike IT or other industries of that nature, nanotechnology is a smoldering business pre-super-nova. Predicting the precise time of detonation and the rate of this explosion is not possible because it is dependent upon discoveries yet to be made, but it will happen with certainty.

As a biologist, I take a slightly different look at business than many people. I do not believe in incessant growth. That violates the laws of thermodynamics. I believe in achieving a healthy steady state. That requires many things, including a change in the current business and social paradigm of perpetual growth. Maybe that is a topic for a different audience…

Question 12: What are your plans for the future?

I have too many plans to list here. I will continue to invent, create, learn, and educate. For more information on BioForce Nanosciences, Inc., you can visit our web site at http://www.bioforcenano.com/ 
 

This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.
 

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