In the early 1980s, scientists started using the baculovirus-insect cell system (BICS) to make recombinant proteins for biomedical research. The resulting products, though, lacked certain elements of the glycan structures that decorate human proteins.
“It turns out that the precise structures of those glycans are really important,” says Donald Jarvis, PhD, professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He set out to fix that in 1987.
As he explains it: “I wanted to learn how to metabolically engineer insect cells and/or the viral vector.” For 35 years, he worked on engineering the BICS to make human-like glycans using moth (Spodoptera frugiperda; Sf) cells as the host and recombinant baculoviruses derived from Autographa californica nucleopolyhedrosis virus as the vector.
In 2011, Jarvis spun this work into a company, GlycoBac, LLC, where he is the founder and president. A couple of years later, work in the lab of Arifa Khan, PhD, at the FDA’s Laboratory of Retroviruses, revealed a disconcerting problem with the BICS: All the Sf lines tested were contaminated with a novel rhabdovirus.
“There’s two ways to deal with contamination in a host used for biologics manufacturing: One is to clean it up, and the other is to start clean in the first place,” Jarvis explains. His team took the second approach and created an Sf-rhabdovirus-negative (Sf-RVN) Sf cell line. “I started getting phone calls about people wanting to use our Sf-RVN cells for biomanufacturing,” he says.
In fact, he got so many calls for these cells, that GlycoBac teamed up with MilliporeSigma, which now has the exclusive rights to market, license, and distribute these cells for biomanufacturing.
All along, Jarvis kept running a research lab, and still does, but it can be a tricky line to travel. “It is analogous to separation of church and state,” Jarvis says. Advances from his academic work belong to the University of Wyoming, but Jarvis explains that GlycoBac “can license biotechnology back, and that’s been a magical formula, because then it goes into the company to refine our projects.”
By learning to walk the academic-industry line, Jarvis got the best of both worlds—the ability to work on interesting academic research projects, coupled with the opportunity to translate the results into products that can improve the research of others and possibly the health of people around the world.