University of North Carolina researchers studying heart, lung, and blood diseases are getting a powerful new tool likely to spur new company spinouts.

A National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute grant of $2.5 million over four years to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will provide rapid gene screening services to about 70 Institute funded researchers on campus. The NHLBI is a division of the National Institute of Health.

Dr. Cam Patterson, director of the Carolina Cardiovascular Biology Center at UNC, where the new microarray technology center is being established, says, “This is a tremendously promising tool for looking for new therapeutic endpoints.”

The microarray gene expression technology the center is developing puts 20,000 genes on a postage stamp-sized chip. “It allows us to look at changes in the expression in those 20,000 genes under any conditions we want. Normally we do this one gene at a time, so this is a quantum acceleration of our ability to look at how gene expression changes,” Patterson tells Local Tech Wire.

The ultimate goal of researchers using the technology is to discover genes that cause or prevent the diseases of heart, lung and blood the Institute funded researchers study. That means the researchers are likely to generate those two engines or biotech start-ups, new drug targets and new treatments.

The No. 1 killer

Patterson says heart, lung, and blood researchers have been “a bit behind the curve” on adopting technologies such as the microarrays, “but this we hope will put them ahead of the curve.”

Patterson points out that “Despite decades of research, cardiopulmonary diseases remain the most common cause of death in Western societies.” The diseases range from single gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis to multi-gene diseases such as hypertension and coronary artery disease. All, says Patterson, have important environmental and secondary genetic modifiers.

As an example of how the micro-arrays will be used, Patterson refers to research in his own laboratory. “One of the applications we want to use it for is to find out what genes are important in a process called angiogenesis.”

Angiogenesis is the process of blood vessel formation under pathological circumstances such as cancer or heart disease. In heart disease, angiogenesis forming new vessels can be useful, while in cancer it is deadly.

Doing better science

The topic of angiogenesis got a lot of press a few years ago when a New York Times reporter said stopping it might cure cancer. Disappointment followed when early attempts to halt angiogenesis in cancer fared poorly in clinical trials.

“People jumped on a very small number of potential angiogenesis regulators calling them ‘magic bullets,'” Patterson says. He believes rapid-screening technologies such as microarrays will “help scientists make fewer errors. They won’t jump on one car of the train and think it’s the engine,” he explains.

“We really want to know the entire gene expression profile of a blood vessel under pathological circumstances,” says Patterson. The goal, he says, is to find ways to accelerate or inhibit blood vessel growth.

Patterson says the microarray gene expression center is one of 10 nationally funded by the NHLBI. Others are at Harvard, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD, and other major medical centers.

Patterson says he expects the gene array center to be fully functional in six months and distributing data the first year. Then, he says, the centers will distribute the technology itself as well.

“My goal for this facility over the next four years is to put UNC at the forefront of microarray and gene expression analysis for diseases of the heart, lungs and blood,” Patterson says.