Company To Develop UNC-CH Invention For Genetic Detection

December 20, 1996

CHAPEL HILL -- A chemistry associate professor's invention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has spawned a new company that plans to develop and market a diagnostic kit for genetically detecting cancers and hundreds of different infectious agents.

The new company, Xanthon Inc., began operating in Chapel Hill this week under a license agreement with the university.

The invention, by Dr. Holden Thorp, is a new method of genetic diagnostics using advanced electrochemistry to detect DNA and identify its structure. In Thorp's technique, special compounds called mediators are used to carry electrons from DNA or RNA, another nucleic acid, to electrodes, producing an electrical signal that indicates the presence and quantity of a genetic material.

James Skinner, president and chief executive officer of Xanthon Inc., said tests using the new technique will be less expensive, faster and more reliable than conventional diagnostics, which rely upon fluorescent labeling and extensive purification. He said that Xanthon plans to market its first test kits within three years.

"This technology has the potential to make a significant impact on the diagnostics industry," Skinner said. "The whole area of DNA or RNA constitutes the next wave of diagnostic procedures for infectious diseases, cancer and various genetic conditions. In the future, these procedures will become the norm, replacing the methods used today, which are less sensitive and less specific."

While many laboratories already use genetic tests to identify some organisms, these tests are expensive, time-consuming and not always completely reliable, Thorp said.

Increasing the availability and reliability of diagnostic tests could enable the world's health organizations to rapidly screen blood supplies for infectious agents such as AIDS and hepatitis, he said.

"The next generation of diagnostic tests will be faster and more accurate, and many of them will be done at the point of care -- in a local lab or doctor's office," Thorp said.

Dr. Francis J. Meyer, associate vice provost for technology development, said the university saw strong potential in Thorp's invention as the basis for a new company.

Meyer's office helped develop Xanthon's business plan, negotiate the license agreement and select investors, which include Intersouth Partners III L.P.; Aurora Ventures LLC; and FS/FC-Xanthon Limited Partnership, all based in the Research Triangle Park, N.C. Meyer said that the university holds equity in Xanthon and will receive royalty payments.

"This venture shows great promise for the economy of North Carolina," Meyer said. "Xanthon is a local company based on a UNC invention, and all of the investors are from North Carolina. But the market is global. This technology has the potential to improve medical diagnostics almost anywhere in the world."

Thorp said the invention resulted when his colleagues' basic studies of metallic compounds converged with his own fundamental interest in the chemical reactivity of DNA. As he studied the rapid oxidation of guanine, associated with the mutations that lead to cancer, Thorp saw that guanine oxidation rates could also be used in detection and diagnosis.

"This was truly a discovery of serendipity," Thorp said. "We weren't looking for a major DNA/RNA detection breakthrough, but we found one." - 30 -

Note: Thorp can be reached at (919) 962-0276 until Dec. 21, at (910) 485-2832 until Dec. 23 and at (919) 932-9274 until Dec. 26.

UNC News Services Contact: Juliet Dickey, Mike McFarland
Graduate Studies and Research Contact: Neil Caudle at (919) 962-7765

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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