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A New Vision Into the Structure of Proteins Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd. IP

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Okinawa Protein Tomography is providing what the pharma industry has wanted for years: macromolecular imaging without crystallization

The structure and movement of proteins are extraordinarily complex, but being able to properly model them is one of the keys to developing new biopharmaceuticals and gaining a better understanding of diseases such cancer and malaria. Thanks to the imaging techniques of Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd., researchers have access to a clearer picture.

As Akira Kamei, CEO of Okinawa Protein Tomography explains, it might have been the warm weather that brought Professor Ulf Skoglund from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. However, thanks to the instrument that he uses for his groundbreaking approach to imaging protein structure that was first developed in Sweden, the cold is never far away. The instrument is a cryo transmission electron microscope (Cryo TEM), for which sample staging temperatures can drop as low as –193ºC, and as impressive as the instrument may be – Kamei explains that there are only three in Japan – it is an OIST-patented algorithm that makes the technique of protein tomography so powerful.


An image of an antigen-antibody pair generated with protein tomography, courtesy of Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd.


Cryo TEM, courtesy of Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd.

Pulling Away the Veil on Macromolecular Structure

In order to generate these images, the sample is flash frozen and then transmitted with a beam of electrons. It is tilted gradually up and down to an angle of 70 degrees. At the same time, hundreds of image “slices” are generated, and it is from this series of images that the patented imaging algorithm known as COMET produces a 3D image of a protein’s tertiary structure, or a cell, or the interaction point of an antigen and antibody, with a 15 angstrom (1.5 nanometer) resolution.

These images are invaluable for medical research and biopharmaceutics. As Kamei explains, the standard molecular analysis technique for years has been X-ray crystallography, which works fine for smaller molecules. “But in the protein medicine production process, biopharmaceutical companies want to observe the protein molecule and its complexes. The problem is that proteins often can't be crystallized. This means many biopharma companies are developing their medicines without the benefit of observation.”

Using the images generated by protein tomography can give drug companies the ability to make molecules that can match the complex three-dimensional structure of the proteins or macromolecules where the drug needs to be effective. Because the preparation method for protein tomography allows for a look at proteins in circumstances that are closer to the way that they exist in the human body, researchers have to do far less guesswork.

A Unique Technique With Global Potential

As Kamei explains, Skoglund is a pioneer in the field of this kind of molecular structure analysis, and there are no other competing methods that can deliver this kind of imagery. OIST holds the patents (two in the US and one in Japan) for protein tomography, and Okinawa Protein Tomography is the exclusive licensee of the patents. The firm has the right to sublicense, but because of the rarity of Cryo TEMs, clients now send their samples to the company for study.

Protein tomography is a natural fit for the pharma industry, and Okinawa Protein Tomography already has several Japanese pharma companies as clients. They are in talks with potentially interested pharma companies overseas. Universities who want to use the method for their research are also potential clients. The firm is looking to partner with either a large company that handles R&D for a biotech hub like Singapore's Biopolis, or potential licensees who own a Cryo TEM or need to use one.

Based on interview in February 2016


Okinawa Protein Tomography Ltd. CEO, Akira Kamei