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George Mason University Spinoff Ceres Targets a Rapidly Expanding Market

Tuesday, November 24, 2015  
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As posted online for Washington Business Journal, getting a timely diagnosis for patients with Lyme disease is tricky. In 2013, Virginia even passed a law requiring doctors to inform patients just how unreliable current blood tests can be.

But executives at George Mason University spinoff Ceres Nanosciences Inc. say they're poised to change that with a highly sensitive urine test they've developed for diagnosing the increasingly common tick-borne illness. Earlier this month, results supporting the reliability of their Lyme disease test were published in the Journal of Translational Medicine.

It was another step toward the company's first commercial product using what it's dubbed "nanotrap" particles — and the company's ultimate goal of using them to disrupt the diagnostics market, said Ceres CEO Ross Dunlap.

"There are so many gaps in diagnostic testing and people don't realize it," Dunlap said. "Lyme disease is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of our technology."

The company was started in 2008 by GMU-Manassas professors Lance Liotta and Chip Petricoin, who are experts in the study of protein behavior. Working with fellow professors Barney Bishop and Alessandra Luchini, they invented the nanoparticles that can trap and collect never-before-seen microscopic materials for scientific study.

With more than $4 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with about $2.5 million in angel funding, they are working to develop multiple applications for the technology, including better tests for tuberculosis and malaria. The company was also recently awarded funding from the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corp. to adapt the test to a new format for Food and Drug Administration approval and incorporate testing for other tick-borne diseases.

Ceres is targeting a rapidly expanding market with its early focus on Lyme disease, Dunlap said. There were 3.4 million Lyme disease tests in 2008, according to federal data, and Ceres estimates a 10 percent annual growth in the market. They expect to generate $2 million in sales in the first two years the test is on the market, but say there's $200 million sales potential within five years of launch.

More broadly, the company is researching ways to incorporate its nanotrap technology into over-the-counter tests consumers can give themselves similar to pregnancy or HIV tests.

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