IU-developed tech to advance drug research under agreement with major corporation

Megadalton Solutions has licensed technology to Waters Corp., with applications to the development of new cell- and gene-based therapies targeting genetic disease

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A startup company created four years ago by two chemistry professors at Indiana University Bloomington has reached a deal with a major corporation.

Martin Jarrold holds a disassembled ion trapView print quality image
Martin Jarrold holds a disassembled ion trap, showing the detection cylinder that is at the heart of the charge detection mass spectrometry technology. Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Megadalton Solutions, co-founded by IU Distinguished Professors Martin Jarrold and David Clemmer, will license IU-developed technology to Waters Corp., a global leader in laboratory instruments and analytical software. The technology under the agreement has applications to the development of cell and gene therapies, which use modified cells or genes to repair patients' genetic disorders.

The agreement with Waters Corp. was facilitated by the IU Innovation and Commercialization Office, or ICO, which helps identify, protect and commercialize technology developed by IU researchers. Jarrold and Clemmer are both faculty members of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry.

"Gene- and cell-based therapies have the potential to make a big difference for a lot of people," Jarrold said. "In many ways, we're talking about the future of medicine."

The potential of these therapies can be seen in some early drugs currently on the market, such as a gene-based therapy to improve vision in people with a rare genetic eye disorder and a cell-based therapy to treat certain blood-borne cancers. It's estimated that over 200 new gene- and cell-based therapy drugs are currently in the drug development research pipeline.

The IU-developed technology licensed to Waters Corp. is called charge detection mass spectrometry, a form of scientific measurement first described in the 1960s but only recently refined to its current level of sensitivity in Jarrold's lab at IU. Using this method, researchers can analyze, measure and describe large, complex molecules in solution at previously unknown levels of accuracy.

Jarrold in the labView print quality image
Jarrold in his lab with the charge detection mass spectrometry instrument. Chris Meyer, Indiana University

"We saw the strong potential of this technology early on," said Dan McNerny, a technology manager at IU ICO. "We're delighted that Megadalton Solutions has found a corporate partner who can ensure its discoveries will contribute to the advancement of new therapies with the potential to benefit so many people."

Under the agreement, Waters Corp. will apply Megadalton Solutions' discoveries to their own scientific instruments. The company will also sublicense technology rights to Megadalton Solutions so the startup can continue serving its current clients.

Charge detection mass spectrometry technology has applications to gene and cell therapies because these drugs depend on the delivery of specific genes or cells into the body using some form of encapsulation, Jarrold said. (The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 developed by Moderna and Pfizer, for example, deliver instructions to generate a harmless fragment of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the body using a capsule known as a lipid nanoparticle.) The ability to precisely measure an encapsulated gene or cell is critical to the development of gene- and cell-based therapies, since drug makers need to confirm whether the gene or cell prepared for delivery is in fact the gene or cell they're trying to introduce into the body.

An extremely high level of precision is important when measuring these genes or cells to avoid creating empty capsules, or genes with genetic mutations, Clemmer said. Drug makers need to confirm there are no errors in the final product since empty capsules could dilute the effectiveness of the drugs, and mutated genes could cause harm.

"This whole endeavor began as a basic science question," Jarrold added. "We started out trying to solve a problem related to measuring the electrical charge in water droplets. Only later did we use the method to weigh viruses, after which we realized our techniques had applications to a lot of important questions in the field of drug development."

In addition to a previously unachievable level of accuracy, charge detection mass spectrometry is also much faster compared to existing methods.

"Analyses that previously required days are achievable in minutes," Jarrold said.

The breakthrough for this measurement technology was the development of an "ion trap," he added. By bouncing a trapped ion through a cylinder between two mirrors, the researchers were able to significantly amplify the signal used to detect a molecule under analysis, resulting in a highly precise measurement when combined with software technology.

A significant amount of the experimental equipment used in the development of this technology was built by specialists in the electronic instrument services group and mechanical instrument services group in the IU Bloomington Department of Chemistry. Also contributing to the work was Ben Draper, an IU Bloomington Ph.D. graduate who is Megadalton Solutions' first full-time employee.