Vanderbilt Ph.D.’s new company provides researchers ‘X-ray’ on cellular processes

Researchers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries long have used cells as mini-factories to produce fuels, medication and other products. They know what goes into cells and what comes out — for instance, yeast cells take in sugar and produce alcohol.

What researchers don’t know is what is happening inside the cells during that process, or which of thousands of potential pathways are the most effective.

A new company out of Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, MetaMap BioWorks, seeks to open a window on those processes.

Lara Jazmin, who last month earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering, said she and Associate Professor Jamey Young, the principal investigator on the work, are moving forward with their company thanks to help from Vanderbilt Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization.

The decision came after completing the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, in which they worked with an entrepreneurial mentor and interviewed 100 potential customers, Jazmin said.

“Our technology helps other researchers pinpoint where they could optimize the cells that they’re using,” Jazmin said. “Within the ‘black box’ of the cell are these biochemical reactions, and researchers don’t know which pathways are efficient or bottlenecks or which byproducts might be produced. Our technology uncovers where bottlenecks or wasteful side pathways may be occurring.”

She compared the work to that of an X-ray technician – their technology reveals where internal problems lie without attempting to diagnose or fix them.

The technology uses cell cultures, stable isotopes, biochemical profiling and mass spectrometry to produce a metabolic flux analysis – the “X-ray” that looks inside cells.

A real-life example of where their technology could be useful is with this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. The winners isolated chemical compounds found in plants and converted those into drugs to fight roundworm and malaria. There is now technology that allows microbial strains to produce these drugs, and MetaMap BioWorks’ metabolic flux analysis could help speed up the production.

In addition to being selected for I-Corps, MetaMap BioWorks took home $1,500 from investors in July after winning the Fishbowl Fights competition hosted by the Association of University Technology Managers.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering