Company lauds immune system test for its speed, lack of radioactivity


A Columbia company, developing what it says is a unique test that can swiftly monitor the body's immune system, will be part of a year-long study to compare the immune systems of AIDS patients and uninfected patients."It's really the first product of its kind to provide researchers and clinicians with information of cellular immune status," said Peter Sottong, vice president of Cylex Inc.

Cylex's technology, called Luminetics, measures the activity of T cells, which regulate the body's response to diseases, or its level of immunity.

Dr. Judith Britz, a cellular immunologist, president and CEO of Cylex, said the test is unique because it uses an enzyme system rather than radioactive substances to measure the immune function.

It can be done in 24 hours or less, she said, noting that other immunity tests take up to a week and use radioactive substances, such tritiated thymidine, which includes a radioactive form of hydrogen.

Cylex's product is used for research only. But this year, Cylex received a Maryland Industrial Partnerships award that will give the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology $55,000 to monitor AIDS and other patients using Cylex's product.

Luminetics can be used by doctors treating someone getting a transplant or with cancer, autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, and infectious diseases, such as AIDS."They will probably have a niche," Dr. Howard Lederman, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is not affiliated with the study. He added, though, that the product is not likely to, "revolutionize the way that we do blood counts."

Lederman said a similar test that did not use radioactive ma-terials was developed several years ago. "There was a lot of excitement," he said, but no one uses it anymore because the test required special equipment and the data it produced could not be compared with the old radioactive data.

Lederman also said the radioactivity used for similar tests is so weak it is usually undetectable.

But Britz, who joined Cylex about a year ago, said even the low levels of radioactivity could contaminate an area for years. She said that, though data from Cylex's test won't be equivalent to older data, the two will be comparable.

Cylex was begun in 1992, when Sottong and immunologist Marjorie Wier, who worked together at a company that developed hepatitis and HIV blood tests, decided to start their own corporation.

Their company, called Biotechnology Transfer Inc., or BTI, was in a business similar to consulting: BTI showed other companies how to take their ideas for developing tests from concept to commercialization.

About 1996, the company's mission, and later its name, changed.

BTI was awarded a grant to develop a test to monitor the effectiveness of a vaccine for Q Fever, a disease with flu-like symptoms. Wier, who later died of cancer, proposed a solution that could be used to test other vaccines. The company patented the test and shifted its business from consulting to product development."We know that it has a very broad array of applications," Britz said.

When Cylex made the shift into product development, four of its five employees worked nearly a year without pay.

The company - which now employs eight, including five scientists in a 4,800-square-foot office and laboratory - has since raised $3.6 million in venture capital, Britz said."We were immediately attracted to the technology and its promise," said Ron Hahn, a general partner at Early Stage Enterprises LP in New Jersey, Cylex's lead investor. "It, to us, allows clinical practitioners to practice better medicine."

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