Medical labs’ leftovers find uses elsewhere
Millions of tiny tubes of cells, proteins, antibodies, and other scientific goo sit in freezers at research institutions across the country.
These leftovers of past lab experiments can languish for years, frozen and forgotten. Now a Boston company called Kerafast Inc. is helping institutions clean out their freezers and reuse biological materials for new research through an online marketplace, a sort of Craigslist for biologists.
Since Kerafast began its service in 2010, more than 2,000 researchers around the world have used the company’s website to search the freezers of 112 research institutions, buying unique biologic materials created in experiments by other scientists.
Annie Huhn, a research fellow at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, recently spent $250 for a line of cells on Kerafast that helped her with her work studying proteins.
“They have materials that you’re definitely not going to find anywhere else,” Huhn said.
Robert P. Bondaryk, a biochemist by training and veteran of the biotech industry, hatched the idea for Kerafast six years ago.
“This is gold in freezers that many institutions are sitting on,” said Bondaryk, the company’s chief executive. “Let’s take what’s in their freezers and make money from it.”
A year after its launching, Kerafast had signed up 10 institutions. This summer, the company hit a milestone when it enrolled its 100th research institution, adding to a list that includes Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts, and Harvard University.
Most of the biologic concoctions Kerafast sells look like clear liquids to the naked eye. But scientists see much more: raw materials for research that could lay the groundwork for discoveries of life-changing drugs to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s, and many other debilitating diseases.
The products offered on Kerafast’s website are divided into different research areas, such as cancer, stem cells, immunology, and neurobiology. Click on cancer, and you get a list of dozens of “featured products” — myriad varieties of cells, antibodies, and more —for sale. Each item comes with a short description that includes the name of the scientist who created it.
Prices range from $65 to more than $6,000 per product. The average order is about $500.
Kerafast ships the products quickly, packed in dry ice, from one lab to another, sometimes around the world.
Thomas Fazzio, assistant professor of molecular medicine at UMass Medical School in Worcester, needed a certain type of antibody, a protein the immune system produces to fight harmful substances, for his work with stem cells.
He contacted a lab in California, but did not hear back for weeks. He did not want to try developing the antibodies on his own, because the process would have taken months and cost thousands of dollars.
A Google search led Fazzio to the Kerafast website, where he found the material he needed for about $300. “We can buy it one day and get it the next day, as opposed to begging somebody else for it,” Fazzio said.
Kerafast splits its sales revenues with the research institutions that supply its inventory. Bondaryk initially established the company as a nonprofit, with a mission to provide a new source of revenue for institutions at a time when federal support for research was waning. But he switched to a for-profit model because it allows Kerafast to charge more for products and allow research institutions and the company to earn more.
Kerafast handles all the administrative work required to sell its products, including the legal agreements, which are necessary because the biologic materials are considered intellectual property. This is helpful especially f or smaller research institutions, such as Brandeis University in Waltham, where staff do not have the time or resources to seek out new homes for their surplus materials.
“We’re a really small tech-transfer office. I don’t want to get bogged down in red tape,” said Rebecca Menapace, associate provost at Brandeis.
Bondaryk estimates there are as many as 1 billion tubes of bioresearch materials sitting in freezers across the United States. Every day, he tries to add a few more of these materials to his website, where scientists can access them.
“Our approach is to take any material and try it out,” Bondaryk said. “The downside is maybe something doesn’t sell, but the upside is you discover stuff you never thought anyone would want.”