Healthcare Enterprise: Murfreesboro BioVentures Offers Nucleic Acid Services and Products

Food Safety a Top Focus

Nestled between a retail strip center and an upscale neighborhood, there's an attractive, two-story brick building in the curve of a Murfreesboro cul-de-sac. With no signage to indicate what's inside, passersby may decide it's a commercial office of some sort, obviously busy since a FedEx self-service drop box is next to the front door.

What is inside would probably surprise many, since the 10,000-square-foot building houses a successful biotechnology enterprise called BioVentures Inc.
Founded in 1988 by scientist Elliott P. Dawson, BioVentures, with 13 employees, is in the nucleic acid business.

"Our current product line addresses nucleic acid, either its isolation or its detection," Dawson explained.

The building blocks of all living organisms, nucleic acids are blocks of molecules; common nucleic acids are RNA (ribonucleic acid) and its more celebrated cousin, DNA. That's why one of BioVentures' client sectors is law enforcement laboratories.

"A fair number of our products are used in forensics to do offender identification or offender databasing; or in some jurisdictions, our products are used for paternity determination," he said.

With more than 60 patents to its credit, BioVentures develops and markets a long line of assays allowing for the identification of nucleic acids by using markers such as fluorescent dyes.

Dawson explained, "That's independent of the source of nucleic acid. It could be from a human, from a plant, from a model organism that's used in research, from a food product that might be contaminated with salmonella or e-coli – which is pretty topical these days – or in another form of consumer product, like toothpaste or makeup. We have developed products used in the isolation of nucleic acids from all those sources."

BioVentures also offers a line of custom markers. "If what we sell off the shelf isn't what you're looking for, then you can design it all online," said Kristie Womble, vice president of innovative projects. Those products are usually out the door in one-to-two weeks

Added Steve Simmons, BioVentures' product manager, "A lot of people think it's more expensive for custom work, but we don't really charge them any extra for that. In fact, sometimes it might be a little cheaper for them. That's one thing we've definitely tried to do is be customer-oriented and fit the niche of giving them what they want rather than what we have." What's more, once researchers use a BioVentures custom marker and their work is published, other researchers turn to the company for that same marker.

In addition to forensics labs, Simmons said other customers include government research institutes like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, university researchers and industries such as pharmaceutical giants with research and development operations.
"Most of the large research facilities, whether they're university-oriented or government-oriented, eventually at one point or another are going to be using some of our products," he said.

The Ribosomal Database Project, based at Michigan State University, is a repository of more than 180,000 samples, which are used by researchers around the globe. The project, using BioVentures' products, also offers analysis support for those researchers. "Each bacteria produces a certain fragment pattern, and so all of those are correlated to our standard set for the downstream analysis," Dawson said.

BioVentures' scientists enjoy collaborative relationships with Vanderbilt University investigators. John A. Phillips, director of Vanderbilt's Division of Medical Genetics, and some of his colleagues have worked with BioVentures to identify genes and genetic changes associated with essential hypertension. Other studies have focused on pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension.
In 2008, BioVentures forged a partnership with German-based Analytik Jena, a specialist in the field of optical spectroscopy and elemental analytics. Analytik Jena derives its name from its location in Jena, Germany, where most students attend one of two highly technical universities. Carl Zeiss Inc., one of the world's leaders in sophisticated microscope development and production, is also headquartered in Jena.

What caught Dawson's eye during a November 2007 visit to Analytik Jena was its high-speed thermal cycler, which makes possible the most widely used technique in molecular biology, PCR, to be conducted in a fraction of the time. Polymerase chain reaction is used to amplify a piece of DNA by in vitro enzymatic replication. "The PCR process typically takes an hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, depending on what you're trying to amplify. It's a technique where you take just a few copies of a molecule and make literally millions and millions of them," Dawson explained. "What the amplification does is make a Xerox copy at the molecular level." Such amplification is what allows DNA identification from the lick on a postage stamp or a blood splatter. Analytik Jena's top-of-the-line thermal cycler cuts the PCR process time down to about 11 minutes with no loss in quality. "That can confer significant competitive advantage. The last I heard, you can get more of most anything other than time," Dawson said.

BioVentures packages Analytik Jena's thermal cyclers under the trademarked name BIOGEAR, and also offers its customers what Womble calls a "one-stop shop" for other instruments such as pipettes, accessories, reagents and software.
Food safety is top of mind at BioVentures, which is working to market the fast thermal cyclers directly to food companies for on-site testing for salmonella, e-coli and other food-borne pathogens. "From our perspective, we know that there are methods that can be used today that are fast, relatively inexpensive with extraordinary precision, and there's no reason why those things can't be implemented and the results acted upon," Dawson said. Womble added that the package marketed by BioVentures is "user friendly, so the person doing the testing doesn't have to be a scientist."

The result could be safer foods and, considering the tainted peanut paste from Georgia-based Peanut Corp. of America, lives saved.