In the Lymelight
IP lawyer and biotech company co-founder Thomas Dunlap helped create a test for Lyme disease
Published in 2017 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on April 13, 2017
Thomas Dunlap has been known to do some Burmese kickboxing, fly airplanes and scuba dive. In college, he wrote a few plays—which eventually led to a script-editor credit for Assault on Wall Street. Then he was a banker and an Army officer before landing at Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig.
But it was his interest in biotech that helped revolutionize Lyme disease testing.
“We are the only company right now, as far as I know, that if you pee in a cup, I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that you have or do not have Lyme disease,” says Dunlap.
In the early-’00s, Dunlap started a firm and practiced law during the day; at night he pursued a biotechnology degree. By 2007, he co-founded Ceres Nanosciences, after a friend introduced him to Drs. Lance Liotta and Chip Petricoin. The doctors were doing university research and had patents that were expiring.
Dunlap negotiated a deal to out-license their technology, brought the doctors on as Ceres shareholders and, because of the conflict of interest, outsourced the patent work. “It was based on the idea that we could detect exogenous human growth hormone in athletes,” he says. “Nobody on earth could do it accurately, except us.”
The work landed them on the front page of USA Today. However, the politics surrounding doping in sports, and the limited scope of applicability surrounding the patent, prevented HGH testing from being Ceres’ breakout.
“We shifted gears,” Dunlap says, “to do something called a ‘biomarker discovery toolkit.’” While typical tests focus on amino acids and are time-intensive, Dunlap says, Ceres found a way to pass body fluids, like urine and blood, through mass spectrometers. The result, he notes, was that tests that took days to run could now be run within an hour.
Ceres explored grant projects, many for the Department of Defense. “[Along with a few other companies,] we’re developing a blood patch for the Army that you slap on your arm,” Dunlap says. “You peel it off and can see, based on the color our nanoparticles turn, what the blood state of the soldier is.”
Ceres’ biggest tech claim to fame, however, is the Lyme test. “The best, most sensitive scientific test, called ‘western blot,’ takes weeks, and they’re only 45 percent accurate,” Dunlap says. “Nobody else can see the antigen for Lyme because it is so diffuse, but we can actually see the antigen.”
Ceres’ tests center around the Nanotrap, which is essentially round particles that attract something they want to detect. Dunlap likens it to a Wiffle ball with adjustable holes so only the thing you’re looking for sticks to the particle.
“If you had everybody in New York City, and you had 100 people wearing red hats, if you looked down with a helicopter, you couldn’t see them all,” Dunlap says. “What our product does is stick all those people with red hats to the inside of our ball and we size feed, so anybody who’s bigger doesn’t fit through the hole. But we also take all the particles and stick them all the way down at the bottom of Manhattan. You can look and see in the middle, ‘Oh, there are the red hats.’”
The company is seeking FDA approval for the test. “We are offering this test in a large number of clinics in the metro D.C. area,” Dunlap says. “We’re doing 400 tests a month—we physically can’t do any more at our labs [right now].”
In Ceres’ early days, Dunlap was a hands-on CEO; now he serves as legal counsel and board chairman. “The first three or four years, [Ceres] was at least half of my day, every day,” he says. “Now it’s every couple days, an hour or so.”
That’s not to say he’s going to have free time on his hands anytime soon. He notes he just added eight more attorneys to his firm and started a tech company to provide a cloud-based legal services platform.