IRMO — In an unassuming whitewashed brick building within an Irmo office park, a biotechnology startup born out of the University of South Carolina now finds itself breaking down barriers that have held back scientific research into treatments and cures of neurodegenerative diseases.
IMCS, short for Integrated Micro-Chromatography Systems, Inc., got its start engineering and producing enzymes, which speed up chemical reactions in the body, like those that break down food during digestion, to make corporate drug testing faster and more accurate.
Now the biotech firm, which has grown its staff threefold in the last five years, is putting enzymes to work aiding in scientific advances to treat diseases from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's, as well as some cancers.
Our brains are largely made up of sugar and fat groupings, called glycolipids, which aid in brain function. It's a chemical reaction caused by enzymes that create them.
When it comes to the progression of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's, scientists have found the loss of such complex chemicals and the enzymes that make them impacts neurological function. With generation of these chemicals, mutations also can occur, causing other neurological problems.
Being able to simulate this at the lab level will allow scientists to see how the process changes and reacts when new treatments are introduced. But making such compounds to study their function has been difficult.
"Because it's a newly developing field, scientists need the enzymes to study it," said IMCS Chief Scientific Officer Andrew Lee. "But those enzymes can be so expensive."
That's where IMCS comes in.
The scientists at the biotechnology firm are partners with University of California, Davis on a $900,000 National Institutes of Health grant meant to bridge the funding gap. They're looking for a faster, more cost-effective way to make enzymes and the the sugary compounds that make up our brains, more broadly available and therefore more affordable to researchers working to combat neurological diseases, as well as viruses and bacterial infections.
Ronald Schnaar, a professor of pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, likened the project to building Legos. While the scientists aren't the ones developing cures, they are creating the molecular building blocks, a library of tools, that could be used in such research.
“If you give us the pieces to build the Lego (structure), we can generate the tools to study anything from cell activity to testing potential therapeutics," he said. "You can use this to build anything.”
Since Lee and two other USC scientists pooled their money in 2013 to form the company, IMCS has fine-tuned its enzyme into a molecular multi-tool with a broad range of research uses.
The company was profitable within a year and saw five years of double digit revenue growth, said Mark Hanna, chief revenue officer and co-founder of IMCS. It has 40 people in its employ now, including a dozen scientists, that have carved out a niche in the precision medicine world, serving 600 clients globally.
And they've gone from a USC incubator space to two buildings off Broad River Road in the Dutch Fork Business Park. It's hard to imagine the buildings, tucked inconspicuously behind a Food Lion grocery store between a safety equipment supplier and a lawn fertilizer company, house a multi-million dollar research lab in doing molecular engineering more commonly associated with such hallowed institutions as Johns Hopkins and Harvard Medical.
When IMCS was getting its start, drug testing companies were using more crude enzymes. Through genetic engineering, IMCS made a better one that broke down the particles of blood and urine samples faster and gave a more accurate reading of the substances within. In particular, using prior testing methods, the illicit drug heroin could show up as morphine, giving a false negative.
Because of their work, the IMCS scientists learned how to clone and make large quantities of a whole host of lab-created enzymes, which will come in handy as new research buoys demand.
It's advances in research techniques like these that made COVID-19 vaccines created by drug makers like Pfizer and Moderna the fastest ever developed.
Going back to its birthplace, the company also is working with USC on bettering the research process for virus strains, like those that produced the COVID-19 virus, isolating them more quickly and from a smaller sample size.
Enzymes also aren't the only work IMCS does.
IMCS is finding success adding its own innovations to a common lab tool called a pipette tip.
The tips are used to measure and move liquidized samples from one container to another. But IMCS made it faster by adding a chemical-separating resin inside the tips themselves, reducing a step along with the chance for contamination and error.